The three National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) national security laboratories—Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL)—are a major component of the U.S. government’s laboratory complex and of the national science and technology base. These laboratories are large, diverse, highly respected institutions with broad programs in basic sciences, applied sciences, technology development, and engineering; and they are home to world-class staff and facilities. Under a recent interagency agreement between the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community, they are evolving to serve the needs of the broad national security community. Despite this broadening of substance and support, these laboratories remain the unique locus of science and engineering (S&E) for the U.S. nuclear weapons program, including, most significantly, the science-based stockpile stewardship program and the S&E basis for analyzing and understanding nuclear weapon developments of other nations and non-state actors. The National Research Council (NRC) was asked by Congress to assess the quality of S&E and the management of S&E at these three laboratories. On February 15, 2012, the NRC released a report on the quality of the S&E management (the “phase I report”).1 This second report (the “phase II report”) addresses the quality of S&E.
In order to conduct this phase II assessment, the NRC assembled the Committee to Review the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the Department of Energy’s National Security Laboratories—Phase II, composed of distinguished scientists and engineers, as shown on p. v. Some members of this committee also served on the phase I committee, but most did not. Some of the committee’s findings and recommendations are presented in this Summary, and more are found in Chapters 2 through 6 of the report.2
Assessing the quality of S&E in a meaningful way within the context of the primary nuclear weapons mission of the laboratories requires a broad perspective, both in substance and in time. Referring to criteria developed by the NRC Laboratory Assessments Board and to other sources, the committee chose to judge the quality of S&E as the capability of the laboratories to perform the necessary tasks to execute the laboratories’ missions, both at present and in the future: Are the laboratory mission needs being addressed today? Is there a compelling plan for the future? Are the laboratories recruiting and training the next generation of staff? Are the tools and facilities adequate to meet mission needs? Is the working environment sufficient to attract and retain high-quality staff?
The nation faces major S&E challenges related to the missions of these laboratories that extend well into the future. The country has an aging nuclear weapons stockpile, with many of the weapons being decades old. The last nuclear weapons test was conducted before the United States declared a unilateral moratorium on testing in 1992.3 Because it is no longer possible to test a complete weapon, understanding of the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile must be inferred from relevant S&E knowledge and existing test data. Furthermore, the country faces threats from the development of
1 National Research Council (NRC), Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2013.
2 Findings and recommendations are numbered with the format “X.Y,” where X denotes the chapter in which the finding or recommendation appears, and Y is a counter that starts at 1 in each chapter.
3 See 50 USC 2530. In addition, the United States has signed, but not ratified, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is therefore committed under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties to refrain from actions that would defeat the object or purpose of the treaty, pending entry into force.
improvised nuclear weapons (i.e., terrorist nuclear weapons) and nuclear weapons designed by nations seeking to become nuclear powers. Understanding and evaluating the threat from such developments—including those that are based on novel design approaches rather than on designs that the United States or its allies have been able to study first-hand—is of vital importance. Even though we have more than a half-century of experience with nuclear weapons, the need to understand their S&E in detail is likely more compelling today than it has ever been.
An all-encompassing detailed assessment of the quality of S&E at the three NNSA laboratories is a complex task requiring resources far beyond those available to this committee. Instead, the committee chose to sample a set of activities that are central to the core mission of the laboratories, under the assumption that the quality of all of the laboratories’ S&E work, including research on energy topics, work for others, and basic research, is dependent on the quality of those core capabilities. Moreover, the committee focused on the quality of capabilities rather than on evaluating how well particular projects are being executed. In this way, the report offers a snapshot of the present with an eye to the future. This focus was discussed with and endorsed by NNSA leadership. The committee identified the following as four basic pillars of stockpile stewardship and non-proliferation analysis: (1) the weapons design; (2) systems engineering and understanding of the effects of aging on system performance; (3) weapons science base; and (4) modeling and simulation, which provides a capability to integrate theory, experimental data, and system design. The study committee organized itself into four teams, each of which focused on one of these areas.
The challenge facing the nuclear weapon design community in the coming decades is the certification of the performance of weapons that have aged, and in some cases differ in some details (e.g., due to Life Extension Programs (LEPs)), from designs that have undergone nuclear-explosive testing. Aging—the changes over time in materials and component systems of nuclear weapons—and other alterations may affect the performance of a weapon. In the absence of the ability to test a complete, aged weapon, one must build a knowledge base about how aging affects a weapon’s constituent parts and, from that, develop the capability to predict the performance of an aged weapon. LEPs are motivated by aging and by evolving requirements to improve safety, reliability, and security characteristics. LEPs now underway sometimes require the incorporation of components that are not identical to those in the original weapon because the exact material is not available, possibly because its manufacturing process has evolved. Predicting the performance of weapons systems whose components are not exactly the same as they were when tested decades ago requires precise knowledge. A strong systems-engineering function is the core integrating activity for the results of high-quality scientific research, development, engineering, and manufacturing.
Computer modeling and simulation is a key tool that helps weapons designers integrate all the knowledge and information about the safety and reliability of a weapons system. For the present, modeling and simulation capabilities play important and effective roles in informing the process of certifying the performance and safety of the stockpile. The quality of the research staff and the availability of underground test data allow models of key physical processes to be fine-tuned to actual data.
In the judgment of the study committee—across all four of the pillars it examined and across all three laboratories—it did not find S&E quality issues that would prevent certification of the stockpile. In many areas, the S&E is of very high quality when judged in the wider context. As noted in Chapters 2 through 5, the quality of S&E varies somewhat depending on the area, but nothing was observed that would suggest that the S&E underpinning the stockpile stewardship and non-proliferation missions are currently compromised. S&E quality in these four areas of fundamental importance is currently healthy and vibrant.
In recent years much has been said about the aging workforce that maintains the weapons stockpile. Significant progress has taken place in the laboratories and the NNSA to recruit a new generation of weapons designers, scientists, and engineers. The committee was very impressed by the enthusiasm, morale, and capability of the new recruits. Efforts are being made at all the laboratories to
transition information from experienced staff members to the next generation that will have never seen a weapons test.
Despite these encouraging trends, deterioration of the work environment for scientists and engineers can limit the quality of their work, and thus the nation’s ability to benefit fully from the laboratories’ potential. Looking across the four pillars of stockpile stewardship and non-proliferation examined in this study, several major themes emerge. These themes are, to varying degrees, common to each of the pillars. Consistent with the focus of this study, these themes, in most cases, concern aspects of capabilities—impediments to performing experimental work, balance among classes of experimental facilities, maintenance of facilities and infrastructure, strategic planning and workforce allocation, communications, and workforce issues—that will gradually erode the S&E quality. Maintenance of the stockpile is a long-term effort extending at the very least decades into the future. While planning for that future should be possible, S&E professionals at the laboratories are frustrated with inconsistent funding from year to year, which leads to inefficiencies, waste, and in some cases, a discouraged workforce. Many S&E professionals reported having to piece together support from multiple programs. The committee was told by the laboratories’ staff that some mid-level managers have left for employment in more stable work environments.
Looking at the longer term, uncertainties in the stockpile certification process will tend to grow unless steady progress is made against S&E challenges. The laboratories recognize the need for new higher-fidelity models to replace some current key models that are based on empirical data from nuclear tests. The new models will have to account for weapons aging due to changes in materials and their properties; this requires state-of-the-art capabilities in a number of areas of S&E. New data will have to be acquired from experiments other than disallowed testing, but the cost of performing the necessary experiments is escalating dramatically. This is a major concern.
Scientists and engineers (and managers) across the three laboratories expressed concern about impediments to performing experimental work. There appears to be a consensus that the amount of experimental work has declined and continues to decline. Laboratory staff cited increasing costs and increasing operational restrictions and controls on experimental work. Necessary experiments are very costly and can require multiple approval steps. This is especially true for experiments using radioactive or otherwise hazardous materials, which are often the key materials in nuclear warheads. For high-explosive-driven hydrodynamics experiments (Hydro Shots), a key part of the primary design and certification process, the time scales involved are months to years, and the costs run into millions of dollars. If the current degree of operational oversight continues, too many experiments will be unaffordable, and that would be very damaging to the quality of S&E. Factors driving experimental costs include the loss of trust, excessive duplicative oversight, formality of operations, and a culture of audit and risk avoidance across the NNSA enterprise without balance from risk/benefit analysis. A number of such factors were discussed in the phase I report.4 All experimental activities have inherent risk, which must be balanced against the benefits that derive from conducting the experiments if reasonable decisions are to be made. It is in the nation’s best interest to stabilize the conditions for safe, secure, cost-effective mission success. The risks inherent in doing an experiment need to be brought into balance with the benefits of doing the experiment and the associated risks of not doing the experiment. This needs to be done on a logically sound basis in order to guide important decisions and resource allocations. The committee does not advocate irresponsible behavior, but the critical need for experimental work must be weighed against the mounting disincentives facing it. Small incremental increases in safety in the conduct of experiments may require a disproportionate increase in time and cost. All experimental activities have inherent risk, and successful organizations manage that risk in a manner that allows the work to be performed cost effectively with proper regard for safely. It must be recognized that not carrying out the needed experiments imposes a risk to the ability of the NNSA laboratories to build the capabilities for stockpile certification down the road, which could increase the risk to national security.
4 NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013, Chapter 4.
Finding 2.1. Experiments that support the nuclear weapons programs often involve hazardous materials or otherwise carry safety risks. Assessing and controlling those risks is necessary, and mechanisms have been put into place to do so. However, this process necessarily adds to the cost of conducting experiments and can slow or deter experimental work, particularly when the process involves multiple overseers (e.g., NNSA, NNSA field offices, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, etc.) with overlapping safety responsibilities. Moreover, these assessments generally focus on the safety risks associated with particular experiments rather than weighing those risks against the benefits to be derived from the experiments and the risks to the nuclear weapons program from not conducting the experiments.
Recommendation 6.1. The Department of Energy and NNSA, in conjunction with laboratory management, should review the overall system for assessing and mitigating safety risks and identify opportunities for savings and efficiencies, for example, from reducing redundant responsibilities. They should develop a methodology to assess both risks and benefits and should employ that methodology in ensuring safe and productive experimental work at the national security laboratories.
Congress might consider requesting annual updates on progress in implementing Recommendation 6.1 until such time as the methodology is sound and the implementation process is functional.
The laboratories maintain and operate world-leading major facilities—such as DARHT,5 NIF,6 Z,7 and petascale8 computing centers. These major facilities are vital to the execution of the laboratories’ missions. Smaller facilities are also crucial for executing those missions, and they are an important component of the work environment that attracts new talent and retains experienced staff. Examples of such smaller facilities include specialized capabilities for the production of nuclear weapons components, such as neutron generators; facilities that enable processing and experimentation with plutonium, especially to evaluate its long-term aging; and capabilities for developing radiation-hardened microelectronic components and photonic-related components and for beryllium parts fabrication. The rising costs of building and operating large signature facilities can threaten the continued support of such vital smaller facilities, particularly in periods of greatly constrained budgets. Moreover, because signature facilities have greater public and political visibility and can be seen as being inextricably bound up with a laboratory’s fate, there can be understandable pressure on management to sacrifice other capabilities in order to ensure the continuing support of major facilities.
Finding 6.1. World-leading signature experimental facilities are essential to fulfilling the nuclear weapons mission of the national security laboratories, but smaller experimental facilities are also essential to the ability of the laboratories to conduct their work and to attract, develop, and retain staff.
Recommendation 6.2. The laboratory directors, working with NNSA, should ensure a balance between small scientific facilities and the larger signature facilities at the laboratories appropriate for sustaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent and addressing related national security threats within a tight budget profile.
The quality of infrastructure is uneven, ranging from world-leading to unsatisfactory. At one extreme, the NIF at LLNL is a world-leading facility of impressive design and engineering. At the other
5 The Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydro-Test facility (DARHT) at LANL.
6 The National Ignition Facility at LLNL.
7 Z Pulsed Power Facility at SNL, also known as the Z machine or the Z-pinch facility.
8 Computing facilities capable of performance in excess of one petaflop, i.e., one quadrillion floating point operations per second.
extreme, at the same laboratory (and at the others as well) some laboratory staff report having to perform basic housekeeping functions to conduct their work. Examples of old and poorly maintained facilities include the explosives test facilities at LANL. Many important facilities and other infrastructure are deteriorating, including buildings that house important, expensive, and advanced equipment.9 This situation can erode morale and the ability of the laboratories to recruit the best young people. Funding difficulties resulting from federal budget uncertainties make it difficult to address this issue. Nevertheless, continued careful monitoring by NNSA and laboratory management is essential in order to set appropriate priorities for facility improvement.
Computer modeling and simulation is an important component of the weapons program, In the absence of underground testing, the integrated modeling codes (IMCs) provide the only mechanism for assessing the effect on a whole weapon of differences in materials and manufacturing processes relative to those used in the original design. Thus, as these differences increase and underground test data (UGT) becomes a decreasingly reliable method for calibrating the codes, the requirements for fidelity of physical models and accuracy of the numerical methods in the IMCs will increase in order for them to play their required role in the stockpile certification process. At the same time, the architectures of the processors from which high-performance computers are constructed are undergoing disruptive changes, which will lead to a need for a major software redesign of the IMCs, analogous to that required for migrating to parallel computers in the 1990s. Finally, the IMC development teams and the developers of supporting software have simultaneously seen the resources available to them decrease (the size of the code teams are down by a third relative to the late 1990s), while their missions have increased from the support of stockpile stewardship to include a number of other areas, such as counterproliferation and LEPs.
Finding 5.5. There are substantial needs for higher model fidelity and numerical accuracy in the IMCs. In particular, there are no robustly predictive simulation capabilities (i.e., ones that do not require calibration from UGT data) for multiple key physical phenomena. The staffing levels of the modeling and simulation effort are inadequate to meet the needs of retooling the IMC codes to meet the simultaneous challenges of developing higher-fidelity simulation capabilities, meeting expanded mission requirements, and changing the algorithms and software architecture of the codes to respond to the disruptive changes in computer architecture expected to occur over the next decade.
Recommendation 5.2. Given the increasingly important role that the integrated modeling codes will play in certification of the stockpile in the absence of testing, the NNSA should undertake a detailed assessment of the needs for simulation and modeling over the next decade and implement an adequately funded execution plan to meet the challenges outlined in Finding 5.5.
All three laboratories maintain highly qualified, productive workforces. As noted in the phase I report, attrition rates are low—about 4 percent per year—and relatively steady.10 In the course of phase II of the study, the committee met with many people who are enthusiastic and apparently pleased with being at their laboratories. However, the committee notes some reasons for concern. For example, it heard numerous, and widespread, complaints about deteriorating conditions at the laboratories. As recounted in phase I of this study,11 these complaints focused primarily on declining infrastructure and a perceived increasing burden of rules, regulations, operational formality, constraints and restrictions, and administrative burdens. The committee notes that while there have not been significant negative changes in recruitment and retention, some of this continued success may be due to the state of the economy since
9 This matter was discussed in the phase 1 report, NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013.
10 NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013, p. 13.
11 NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013.
2008; the committee cautions that an improving economy may produce better opportunities outside the laboratories.
NNSA and the laboratories should pay close attention to the problem of hiring and retaining a cadre of first-rate, creative, energetic scientists and engineers that are expert in all aspects of modeling and simulation (M&S), ranging from deep understanding of the underlying physics and mathematics to the most advanced ideas in computer architectures, algorithms, and programming methods. There is uncertainty concerning the staff’s ability to make good use of future high-performance computing systems. Expected disruptive changes in computer architectures will require very high levels of computer science expertise in order to create the software to exploit the new capabilities. There is particular concern in core computer science areas, such as computer architecture, systems software, programming models, tools, and the algorithms used in these systems. While there are some outstanding individuals in these areas within the laboratories, there are also signs of difficulty in recruiting and retention. Among laboratory scientists and engineers, computer science researchers are the most mobile because they can easily find challenging and lucrative employment in industry—while their work is necessary to the NNSA mission, they have other good options. These researchers and engineers appear less likely to come to the laboratories and more likely to leave mid-career than those working in other disciplines.
Maintaining a quality workforce in the face of budget uncertainty and competition from other employers will be very difficult. An atmosphere nurturing broad scientific investigation and intellectual excellence, along with salaries that are competitive with industry, are the keys to maintaining the laboratories’ M&S capabilities.
A supportive and nurturing work environment fosters the ability of highly creative scientists and engineers to do their work while encouraging the retention of senior staff and the recruitment of young staff. The work environment at the laboratories, however, appears to be deteriorating and is at risk of further deterioration.12 Early-career people at the laboratories expressed concern to the committee about time-accounting restrictions that seem to limit their working on new ideas at home or on weekends. Some observe that excessive fractionation of their chargeable time among several tasks reduces productivity and efficiency. Inconsistent and unpredictable funding was also cited, along with conflicts between short-term project demands and sustained scientific progress.13 Scientists in national security laboratories are isolated from the broader world of science due to classification and the nature of their work. Recently imposed restrictions on traveling to conferences, open or classified, adds to this isolation, limiting career development, access to the latest scientific advances, external collaborations, and the ability of scientists and engineers to bring the full range of relevant science to bear on their work at the laboratories.
Following the revelation in 2012 about spending by the General Services Administration for a conference in 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued travel restrictions14 that are hindering travel to scientific and engineering conferences by NNSA laboratory staff. Congress might consider requiring that such travel restrictions at NNSA national security laboratories be no more restrictive than those that apply to scientists and engineers funded by other agencies of the federal government.
Final integration of the advances and understanding in weapons simulation, analyses, design, and materials sciences and technology is a critical activity for the Stockpile Stewardship Program. The integration activities fall under the general areas of systems engineering. Systems engineering is also important in LEPs, for which the importance of training the next generation of scientists and engineers cannot be overemphasized. Special projects often help bring the established and the new systems
12 NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013, Chapters 4 and 5.
13 This matter was also addressed in the phase 1 report—see, for example, NRC, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, 2013, p. 17. That report noted that the four-agency agreement on national security laboratory governance was an important step in fixing this. In the past, task orders from agencies other than DOE were often designed to tap laboratory staff and infrastructure to obtain a specific product without investing in the development of staff or facilities.
14 Memorandum to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, M-12-12, May 11, 2012.
engineering personnel together to assure the health and vitality of systems engineering expertise into the future.
In early 2012 (January to May), the three laboratories fulfilled a request from NNSA to conduct a 120-day study to evaluate alternatives for warheads to be deployed in multiple reentry vehicle systems and to inform NNSA on potential options for future LEPs. The “120-day study”15—which considered advanced options for the nuclear physics package and various approaches on how to configure the stockpile using existing components and systems with an emphasis on raising the levels of safety, reliability, and security—provided an example of how teams consisting of a few experienced designers, several mid-career designers, and a large number of near-entry level designers were given the opportunity to develop timely and workable design solutions within customer constraints. By bringing together scientists and engineers from these different career stages, it provided a mechanism for transmitting information and experience in a productive manner and helped develop useful practices. The 120-day study is an example of a best operational practice that demonstrates the high quality of the systems engineering capabilities within the complex.
Recommendation 3.4. NNSA should continue the approach used for the 120-day study as one means of developing and maintaining a new generation of well-trained weapons designers and the concomitant systems engineering capability.
15 On January 10, 2012, NNSA officially requested that LANL, LLNL, and SNL perform a 120-day study to evaluate alternative warhead designs and to inform NNSA on potential options for future LEPs.