Nuclear Weapons Simulation Research at American Universities
V. CONCLUSIONS: POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
In initiating the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, the DOE's Office of Defense Programs has contracted with five American universities to: 1) exploit their capabilities in research areas germane to nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons supercomputing; and 2) cultivate a future generation of nuclear weapons specialists via this research and closer institutional relationships between universities and the national nuclear weapons laboratories. NRDC offers policy recommendations to both parties to these contracts: the U.S. government and the academic community.
Recommendation 1: The U.S. government should conduct a broad-based interagency review of the Academic Strategic Alliances Program to determine:
- if both its political and technical non-proliferation risks are commensurate with its purported benefits to national security through its role in the SSMP as currently designed; and
- if there are more restrained, technically conservative approaches to stockpile stewardship and management -- more in keeping with the objectives of the nation's nonproliferation and test-ban commitments -- that do not require a "Strategic Alliances Program" to "accelerate" development of a "virtual testing" capability for the nuclear weapons stockpile.
The DOE's Alliances Program is not the first instance in which national security risks from the proliferation of nuclear weapons have taken a back seat to the SSMP's agenda. The very companies involved in developing the ASCI computing hardware to be used in the Alliances Program -- Silicon Graphics Inc. and IBM -- have recently exported smaller super-computers (up to 7 billion theoretical operations per second), such as SGI's "Power Challenge" XL symmetric multiprocessor, to nuclear weapons laboratories in Russia and China, in violation of U.S. export controls.
This class of machines is more powerful than any previously available to nuclear weapons designers in either country, and individual units can be linked together to provide even greater simulation capability.
Likewise, in order to build a constituency and "user base" outside the weapons community for a gigantic laser fusion project at Livermore to support stockpile stewardship, DOE has declassified a wealth of detailed technical information relating to indirect-drive Inertial Confinement Fusion, an area closely related to thermonuclear bomb physics, and intends to declassify even more. Rightly or wrongly, these actions were undertaken primarily to satisfy career and programmatic concerns at the nuclear weapons laboratories, and without thorough interagency nonproliferation review. A similar rush to judgment characterizes the Strategic Alliances Program.
Recommendation 2: The Department of Energy should publish the Academic Strategic Alliances Program contracts, e.g., on the World Wide Web.
One foundation of a democratic society is in public access to information. The Academic Strategic Alliances Program ostensibly consists of unclassified research. Therefore there is no national security impediment to publicly revealing contracts and subsequent task orders under which the universities are operating. To members of the affected university communities and to the broader public, this information will be of direct value to enable informed debate and discussion of the Alliances Program.
Recommendation 3: University endorsement of the Academic Strategic Alliances Program should be re-evaluated in light of:
- the nature of the SSMP as an explicit effort to mitigate and perhaps nullify the restrictions on nuclear weapons design imposed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
- DOE's efforts to use the on-campus programs as the induction, training and recruiting ground for the next generation of nuclear weapon specialists;
- the unavoidable contradiction between nonproliferation concerns and the nuclear weapons simulation objective of Academic Strategic Alliances Program research, resulting in the current discriminatory policies of the Alliances Program against foreign nationals; and
- the involuntary association the Program creates between a graduate student's (or faculty member's) research funding and work product, and the design and reliable operation of weapons of mass destruction, to which an otherwise qualified researcher may harbor deep moral objection.
Recommendation 4: Individual scientists and engineers should re-evaluate their participation in the Alliances Program, given their lack of control over the fruits of their research and its immediate known application to the task of simulating and maintaining the performance of weapons of mass destruction.
The decision to participate in the Academic Strategic Alliances Program is both a personal and an institutional one. One facet of an informed decision is the proper appreciation of the relationship of the Alliances Program to nuclear weapon design activities underway at the National Laboratories. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director Bruce Tarter recently described his lab's approach to supporting both classified and unclassified research on the same computer:
We are now running one center which has a classified component, an open component, and an ability to swing the cycles in the machine between [these components]. 
The problematic nature of dual-use technology (useful for weapons or for civilian purposes) characterizes the nuclear age. While research products of the Alliances Program will be unclassified, they are explicitly intended to "swing" back into the classified, nuclear weapons realm on an "accelerated" timetable. Faculty members and graduate students should not deceive themselves with the comforting notion, offered by Caltech provost Stephen Koonin and other proponents of the program, that the nuclear weapons applications of the program's work will be merely a serendipitous "spinoff" product of "basic science" research undertaken for the general advancement of human welfare. Nuclear weapons applications are the immediate and primary goal of the Alliances Program. Thus professors and students involved in the Academic Strategic Alliances Program may never know the ultimate applications of their research unless they also become engaged in classified nuclear weapons work, which is -- no surprises here -- the ultimate objective of the Department of Energy.
120. "The Proliferation Primer: A Majority Report of the Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, p. 40-42.
121. "ASCI: Throwback To LLNL's Storied Past," High Performance Computing, No. 8, Vol. 6, February 27, 1997.
Explosive Alliances : Nuclear Weapons Simulation Research at American Universities. By Matthew G. McKinzie, Thomas B. Cochran and Christopher E. Paine. January 1998. Print version, $10.00. Order print copies .
last revised 1/22/1998
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
- Latin America Green News: green tax in Chile, blue carbon in Costa Rica, transparent processes requested for Cabo Dorado in Mexico
- posted by Denée Reaves, 4/14/14
- Jonathan Schell, Climate Change, and the (Still Pending) Fate of the Earth
- posted by Mark Izeman, 4/4/14
- Energy Efficiency Progress by America's Utilities: An Update
- posted by Ralph Cavanagh, 3/25/14
Nuclear Document Bank
- NRDC’s Perspectives on the Economics of Small Modular Reactors
- NRDC's Amicus Response in Support of Friends of the Earth
- An Evaluation of the NRC Response to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident
Related NRDC Press Releases
- NRDC Senior Nuclear Scientist Unveils Radiation Dosage Data at Senate Hearing
- Nuclear Security Summit Fosters an Illusion of Achievement, Says NRDC
- NRDC Reacts to the Obama Administration's Nuclear Posture Review
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.