Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fewer Swords and More Plowshares at Livermore America's Three Major Weapons Labs, Where Nuclear Bombs and Other Awesome Devices Were Developed, Are Turning More Attention to Producing a Peace Dividend

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fewer Swords and More Plowshares at Livermore America's Three Major Weapons Labs, Where Nuclear Bombs and Other Awesome Devices Were Developed, Are Turning More Attention to Producing a Peace Dividend

Article excerpt

AT the national laboratory that invented the hydrogen bomb and countless nuclear weapons since then, Richard Landingham is thinking of golf clubs and motorcycle helmets. A scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory here, Mr. Landingham helped come up with a new material that is lightweight and among the hardest substances ever created. Half ceramic and half aluminum, it was devised as armor plating for the military.

Several companies, though, think the material could also make dandy golf-club heads, motorcycle helmets, and bulletproof vests. The ceramic metal that has come out of his ovens is symbolic of a shift under way at the country's national weapons laboratories.

Founded in the era of the Manhattan Project and early cold war, the three major nuclear-weapons labs - Livermore here and Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico - have focused much of their attention on improving the nation's military might.

Now, in an period of declining East-West tensions and shifting national priorities, they are being pushed to expand the nonmilitary work they do in such areas as energy research and environmental problems.

Skeptics wonder if the labs, immersed in the culture of defense, can make the shift to a more-civilian role. But enthusiasts believe this huge reservoir of talent and technology could be instrumental in improving United States industrial competitiveness.

"I think for the next 10 years we are going to make a ... gradual transformation from where we are toward more applications in the civilian, nonmilitary sector," says John Nuckolls, director of Livermore.

Producing things other than missiles and death rays isn't new for the labs. They have long had substantial civilian programs. Almost from the day in 1952 when this sprawling complex east of San Francisco opened, it was a center for fusion research aimed in part at trying to create a clean, virtually limitless source of energy.

But the interest in nondefense work and the spinning-off of more technologies is increasing, partly as a matter of survival. Those who run the weapons labs know that if they are to maintain healthy levels of funding they will have to adapt to a new world in which the demand for nuclear warheads and other exotic weapons will probably drop.

The labs' budgets, collectively about $3 billion, rose in the 1980s with the Reagan military buildup. Seventy percent of the work at Livermore is defense-related. Director Nuckolls expects that figure to drop to around 50 percent in the next few years, close to where it was in the late 1970s.

Part of it is changing national needs. Even before the chummier superpower relationship there was a clamor in Washington to boost US economic and technological prowess. Some see the three major labs of the US Department of Energy (DOE) - indeed, all of the agency's 31 laboratories - playing more of a part.

Cherri Langenfeld, director of technology policy at the DOE, says she thinks it would be a mistake to assume the labs can turn around the economic health of the nation, but she thinks they can make a contribution. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.