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Los Alamos: In with a bang
The Bomb's builders become its custodians
By Andy Walton
LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico -- During World War II, the U.S. government built from scratch a town nestled in the remote and rugged hills of northern New Mexico. The town was Los Alamos, the project was Manhattan, and the secret was the best-kept one of the war -- or so the government thought.
In fact, the Soviet Union received frequent updates on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb.
Here, Gen. Leslie Groves and physicist Robert Oppenheimer led the Los Alamos National Laboratory, perhaps the most ambitious scientific and military joint venture in history. It cost $26 million in 1942 dollars to build the lab and a full-fledged town to support it. The population of the town rose from 1,500 in January 1943 to 5,700 in January 1945. It is about 18,000 today.
The current town of Los Alamos, which was not incorporated until after the war, is where the lab once stood. On New Mexico Highway 502, a vacant guard tower watches over what used to be one of two routes into town. Where MPs once turned away any visitor without a pass, now there's a rest stop where camping is allowed -- with a permit.
Fuller Lodge, originally part of the pre-war Los Alamos Ranch School, stands in downtown Los Alamos next to Ashley Pond (named for the school's founder, Ashley Pond). The U.S. Army purchased the school for the lab site; the lodge, now a conference center, served as the dining and meeting hall for the Manhattan Project.
Some of the cabins where scientists lived also still stand. These rustic accommodations were among the more luxurious during the war and were dubbed "bathtub row" because new housing units had only showers.
After the war, the lab moved across town, and the town grew into the former lab site. The lab's mission was not altered by the change in scenery. Throughout the Cold War, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory constructed tests that would be carried out in Nevada or the South Pacific.
Bomb builders become bomb caretakers
Today, Los Alamos describes its mission as "reducing the global nuclear danger." One of its missions is "stockpile stewardship," the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The lab is called upon to ensure the safety of the weapons in case of an accident; the security of the weapons, so they cannot be obtained and used by an enemy; and their reliability.
Los Alamos scientists must predict how nuclear weapons will behave after sitting idle for as long as 30 years. And under the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, they must do this without detonating test devices.
Instead, Los Alamos uses complex computer modeling to predict the behavior of the materials in the weapons. The lab now has what it bills as the world's fastest supercomputer, a Silicon Graphics machine dubbed Blue Mountain. With their new hardware, Los Alamos scientists expect to run 10 times as many mathematical computations in 1999 as all the calculations run from the start of the Manhattan Project through the end of underground testing in 1992.
The lab also performs "subcritical" tests, which examine bomb materials by exploding a plutonium sample without triggering a chain reaction. Some critics argue that subcritical testing violates the spirit of the treaty, but Los Alamos scientists and government officials say it is within the letter.
Lab spokesman John Bass compares the process to maintaining a car in a garage -- you can take it apart, put it back together, examine and test every part. "The one thing you can't do is turn the key in the ignition."
The Russians are coming
Another change has come to Los Alamos: In 1988, U.S. and Soviet nuclear scientists began observing each other's nuclear tests to monitor compliance with arms control treaties. In September 1993, the first joint experiments were held at Arzamas-16, the Russian equivalent of Los Alamos, which also began as a secret city. A month later, Russian physicists came to Los Alamos for more experiments.
A particular area of cooperation between U.S. and Russian scientists is MPC&A -- materials protection, control and accounting. The fear is that scientists in the former Soviet Union, who routinely go months without a paycheck, might sell their materials and expertise to the highest bidder.
To combat that, Los Alamos and other U.S. labs are offering support, expertise and money. The U.S. Department of Energy has budgeted $800 million for the MPC&A program from 1993 through 2002.
Although Los Alamos' mission has shifted in many ways, the bomb's shadow has never fallen far from this town. As the Los Alamos community drifts toward normalcy and the lab shares more of its research with the public, one look at Technical Area 55 confirms very secret things still go on here. TA-55, where plutonium is handled, is surrounded by a high double fence topped with razor wire. Behind that fence, the nuclear genie still sleeps uneasily.