Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) (previously known at various times as Los Alamos Laboratory and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) is a United States Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, managed by the University of California, located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Laboratory is one of the largest multidisciplinary institutions in the world. It is the largest institution and the largest employer in northern New Mexico with approximately 6,800 University of California employees plus approximately 2,800 contractor personnel.
Approximately one-third of the Laboratory's technical staff members are physicists, one-fourth are engineers, one-sixth are chemists and materials scientists, and the remainder work in mathematics and computational science, biological science, geoscience, and other disciplines. Professional scientists and students also come to Los Alamos as visitors to participate in scientific projects. The staff collaborates with universities and industry in both basic and applied research to develop resources for the future. The annual budget is approximately USD 1.2 billion.
Los Alamos is one of two laboratories in the United States where classified work towards the design of nuclear weapons is undertaken. (The other, since 1952, is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.)
The Manhattan Project
The laboratory was founded during World War II as a secret, centralized facility to coordinate the scientific research of the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop the first nuclear weapons. In September 1942, the difficulties involved with conducting preliminary studies on nuclear weapons at universities scattered throughout the country indicated the need for a laboratory dedicated solely to that purpose. Manhattan Project scientific director Robert Oppenheimer, who had spent much time in his youth in the New Mexico area, scouted the area along with General Leslie Groves and physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, and decided upon the mesa which was once The Los Alamos Ranch School. Oppenheimer became the laboratory's first director.
During the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos hosted thousands of employees in secret (its only mailing address was to a post office box in Santa Fe, New Mexico) along with many Nobel Prize winning scientists. Though its contract with the University of California was initially seen as temporary, the relationship was kept for long after the war. Until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Sproul , the president of the University of California, did not know what the purpose of the laboratory was, and thought it might be producing a "death ray." The only member of the UC administration who knew its true purpose—indeed, the only one who knew its exact physical location—was the Secretary-Treasurer Robert Underhill , who was in charge of wartime contracts and liabilities.
The work of the laboratory culminated in the creation of three atomic bombs, one of which was used in the first nuclear test near Alamogordo, New Mexico, code-named "Trinity", on July 16, 1945. The other two weapons, "Little Boy" and "Fat Man", were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
After the war, Oppenheimer retired from the directorship and it was taken over by Norris Bradbury, whose initial mission was to make the previously hand-assembled atomic bombs "G.I. proof" so that they could be mass produced and used without the assistance from highly trained scientists. Many of the original Los Alamos "luminaries" chose to leave the laboratory, and some even became outspoken opponents to the further development of nuclear weapons.
The Cold War
In the years since the 1940s, Los Alamos was responsible for the development of the hydrogen bomb, and many other variants of nuclear weapons. In 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded to act as Los Alamos' "competitor," with the hope that two laboratories for the design of nuclear weapons would spur innovation. Los Alamos and Livermore served as the primary classified laboratories in the U.S. national laboratory system, designing all of the country's nuclear arsenal. Additional work included basic scientific research, particle accelerator development, health physics, and fusion power research as part of Project Sherwood . Many nuclear tests were undertaken in the Marshall Islands and the Nevada Test Site.
At the end of the Cold War, both labs went through a process of intense scientific diversification in their research programs to adapt to the changing political conditions which no longer required as much research towards developing new nuclear weapons. Los Alamos' nuclear work is currently thought to relate primarily to computer simulations and stockpile stewardship.
The laboratory has had a number of scandals. In 1999, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of 59 counts of mishandling classified information by downloading nuclear secrets—"weapons codes," used for computer simulations of nuclear weapons tests—to data tapes and removing them from the lab. After ten months in jail, Lee pled guilty to a single count and the other 58 were dismissed with an apology from U.S. District Judge James Park for his incarceration. Lee was suspected for a time of having shared U.S. nuclear secrets with China, but investigations found this not to be true. In 2000, two computer hard drives containing classified data were announced to have gone missing from a secure area within the laboratory, but were later found behind a photocopier; in 2003, the laboratory's director, and deputy director, resigned following accusations that they had improperly dismissed two whistleblowers who had alleged widespread theft at the lab.
Dissatisfaction with scandals at the laboratory led the Department of Energy to open its contract with the University of California to bids from other vendors in 2003. Though the University and the laboratory have had difficult relations many time since their first World War II contract, this is the first time that the University has ever had to compete for management of the laboratory. Names that have been mentioned among those interested in bidding for the laboratory include private contractors such as Lockheed-Martin and other universities such as the University of Texas. As of March 2005, though, three of the largest and most likely contractors, Lockheed-Martin, the University of Texas, and Battelle Memorial Institute, have officially declined to bid for management of Los Alamos, improving the likelihood that the UC will continue its management.
In July 2004, an inventory of classified weapons data revealed that four hard disk drives were missing; two of the drives were subsequently found to have been improperly moved to a different building, but another two were remained unaccounted for. In response, director Peter Nanos shut down large parts of the laboratory and publicly rebuked scientists working there for a lax attitude to security procedures. In the laboratory's newsletter for August he wrote: "This willful flouting of the rules must stop, and I don't care how many people I have to fire to make it stop"; Nanos is also quoted as saying "If I have to restart the laboratory with 10 people, I will". However, a report released in January 2005 found that the drives were in fact an artifact of an inconsistent inventory system (the report concludes that 12 barcodes were issued to a group of disk drives that needed only 10; the two surplus barcodes nevertheless appeared on a master list). Thus, auditors wrongly concluded that two disks were missing. The report states that "The allegedly missing disks never existed and no compromise of classified material has occurred". This incident is widely reported as contributing to continuing distrust of management at the lab.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory also used to host the ArXiv.org e-print archive.
- Los Alamos National Laboratory (official website)
- Los Alamos History (official website)
- Los Alamos Study Group - a Los Alamos-based group opposed to nuclear weapons
- Technical area maps
- "Protecting the Nation's Nuclear Materials". Government Calls Arms Complexes Secure; Critics Disagree. NPR.
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