Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) grew out of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s to develop the first nuclear weapons. Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) were spun out of LANL in 1949 to focus on the engineering development of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) was established in 1951 as a site to test/validate nuclear weapon performance in a controlled, remote location. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was established in 1952 to spur innovation in nuclear design and provide competition to LANL.
In 1946, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established to provide civilian oversight of the nuclear weapons capability and warhead production for the Department of Defense (DOD). LANL, LLNL, NNSS, SNL, and other facilities were all under the purview of the AEC. In 1974 the government dissolved the AEC, transferring the nuclear (power and warhead) research, development, and production responsibilities to the newly formed Energy Research and Development Agency (ERDA) and the regulatory/oversight functions to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). ERDA transitioned to the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977. In 1999, the U.S. Congress legislated into existence the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized sub-agency within DOE. This was to address a perceived lack of DOE administrative control of the nuclear weapon capability and national security information. The nuclear weapon design laboratories, as well as the
weapon production and dismantlement facilities, were put under the NNSA along with nuclear propulsion programs for the U.S. Navy.
The first Work for Others (WFO) work in the laboratories dates from the 1960s when DOD asked one of the laboratories to develop sensors for a specific application in the Vietnam War. With the growth of nuclear power in this country, the laboratories were asked to apply their expertise to reliability and severe accident analysis. In the early 1970s, the oil embargo crisis led to the creation of ERDA and later DOE. With this came expansion of the laboratories work into energy for DOE and other agencies.
With the end of the Cold War and the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing that began in 1992, the nuclear mission of the laboratories transitioned from designing and testing of new nuclear warheads into one of science-based stewardship of the existing nuclear warhead stockpile. The diverse and exacting skills required to maintain the nuclear expertise has nurtured unique capabilities at the laboratories. These capabilities are routinely applied to other national security needs—that is, promoting nuclear nonproliferation and analyzing and understanding nuclear weapon developments of other nations and non-state actors. In addition, the materials science, physics, chemistry, computing, and engineering expertise developed for nuclear weapons have been applied to a broad spectrum of national security needs. In 2008, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman formally articulated a vision for the future of the NNSA laboratories as national security laboratories charged with conducting research and development to address a range of national security threats facing the nation.
We are now in a prolonged period of budgetary austerity. In response to funding uncertainty, many laboratories have worked to build their non-sponsor (outside of DOE) funding base to support their core capability to perform their primary nuclear weapon maintenance mission. In fiscal year (FY) 2013, for instance, the NNSA weapons complex laboratories received $1.656 billion in research funding from other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Intelligence Community, DOD, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. National security laboratory scientists also contributed to such diverse environmental problems as ameliorating the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the release of nuclear materials from the tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan.
Nuclear weapons continue to be a major element of our national deterrence posture; however, new non-nuclear national security threats
are constantly emerging. The national security laboratories historically have been able to respond to these non-nuclear threats by drawing upon the capability in personnel and facilities that were funded by a robust nuclear weapons research program. As a byproduct of this national security mission, technology developed in the laboratories has also seeded new U.S. industries and products. Some observers have argued that the laboratories should be re-imagined as engines of technical innovation and commercialization.1 Others have argued that the laboratories risk losing focus on their traditional primary mission as they seek to develop technologies for other national security missions that the private sector or U.S. academia may be equally capable of providing.2
While the exact dimensions of the laboratories’ missions in the future continue to be the subject of active debate, it is clear that they have evolved significantly from the original sole focus on nuclear weapons to meet a broader national security mission.
1 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation, 2013, Turning the Page: Reimagining the National Labs in the 21st Century Innovation Economy, June, http://energyinnovation.us/portfolio-items/turning-the-page/.
2 Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, 1995, Task Force on Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy National Laboratories.