The Bomb Tribe

Facing post-cold war budget cuts, nuclear weapons designers told me last summer that morale was souring. but in October, the bomb design tribe won a stunning victory in the struggle it had never really abandoned--to create the next bomb.

Carol Alonso's creative flashes sometimes came to her as they do to a lot of us, at home in the evening, gazing into a fire. The idea would take shape the next morning as she showered, made breakfast for her husband and two children, pulled her Porsche out of the driveway of her split-level home in the Northern California suburb of Orinda. At the office she'd try the idea on her closest workmates. If they liked it, she'd create some computer models, deliver some briefings, submit her idea to rigorous scrutiny by the best in the business. Every step grew more and more competitive. A pleasant, kind-faced woman, Carol Alonso has "seen grown men cry" as they watched their ideas "picked to pieces." Still, when one of hers made it through, the pain all seemed worthwhile, for Carol Alonso would be handed the prize she and her peers spent their lifetimes chasing.

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She would be given America's next nuclear explosion.

Then would follow the heady days leading up to an underground test, Carol Alonso directing dozens of scientists and technicians towards the ironclad "shot" deadline a year away. If this meant dad and kids saw a lot less of mom, the Alonsos, a thoroughly modern family, coped. After all, they had been through this many times before.

And, too, they had something to look forward to. Once mom's creative flash had become a thermonuclear reaction causing the Nevada desert to rumble with the unleashed force of 150,000 tons of TNT, once mom's bomb finally did go off, the family would celebrate together, unwind, escape. They'd all take a nice vacation.

"We sailed together in the kingdom of Tonga. We hiked in the Himalayas. We sailed in the Caribbean several times. We went to Tahiti and sailed around it in a chartered boat," says Carol Alonso, eyes alight with memories.

"We had wonderful times together."

Wonderful times together for Carol Alonso and her fellow nuclear weapons designers seemed just about over last August when we spoke at her workplace, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It has never been large, this tribe that for half a century has wielded such power over America's imagination and military budget, this tribe with its own guarded mysteries, its own language, rituals, colored badges of belonging, and walled settlements named Sandia and Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. In the Cold War boom year of 1987 there were, in the federal nuclear weapons network, only a few thousand employees in weapons-related research. Only a few dozen of those were, like Carol Alonso, at the very heart of the work.

By 1994, personnel and budget numbers were headed down. Treaties obliged the United States to cut its 1993 stockpile of 16,750 warheads by nearly half within a decade. Gone was the heyday that saw up to four shots a month, more than 1,000 explosions since 1945. President Clinton's renewed moratorium meant the tribe hadn't been allowed a single underground test for nearly three years. Momentum, in fact, seemed tilted towards a permanent worldwide comprehensive test ban. Last summer, weaponeers told me morale was souring as they saw their work and way of life shrinking. "We're subcritical now," said one old-timer, dourly confiding his fear of the unimaginable: the Bomb Design Tribe's imminent extinction.

Today, with the new Republican Congress, such fears appear to have been wildly pessimistic. But to understand how deep the tribe's power runs, you have to go back to something that happened even before the election. On October 21, 1994, the tribe won a stunning victory in the struggle it never really abandoned, the self-preserving fight for more money, more technology, more thinkers, and more latitude to pursue what the tribe has always made its mission: preparing to create the next Bomb.

That victory came when Department of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary gave the official go-ahead for a new superlaser project called the National Ignition Facility, to be built at Lawrence Livermore. As noted science reporter Keay Davidson details in an accompanying article, NIF is a $1.8 billion nuclear weapons designer's dream machine advertised as a peaceful energy program. And NIF is only one item on the tribe's wish list of new weapons-related lab projects. If all are funded--at well over $3 billion--the Bomb Design Tribe will thrive for years to come. Ironically, the Republicans' election victory, a supposed rebellion against big spending, makes that funding all the more likely.

For anti-nuclear activists (and anyone else who is no friend of the Bomb Design Tribe), the irony runs deeper and more bitter. Fifty years ago this August 6 Hiroshima was erased by a nightmare burning 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit at its center, killing 145,000 people, leaving one survivor with memories of "screaming children who have lost sight of their mothers; voices of mothers searching for their little ones.. . .Everyone among the fleeing people is dyed red with blood." At Los Alamos, the news of the successful bombing sent celebrating scientists rushing to make dinner reservations at the best Santa Fe hotel while a few somber peers looked on feeling, as one remembered, "nausea." Three days later came Nagasaki.

Ever since, opponents of the Bomb Design Tribe have argued that nuclear weapons are an inherent threat to global stability and the survival of humankind. Many have declared, too, that America's use of the bomb is a moral blemish on our nation's soul, one we can cleanse only by leading the way in disarmament. For these voices, the peaceful conversion of the nuclear labs--the extinction of the Bomb Design Tribe--has always been not at all unthinkable. Lately, it even seemed doable: With no one to arms race against, no Star Warrior for president, and, even by hawkish estimates, far more nuclear weapons than America could ever need, the very signals that struck doom in the hearts of weaponeers buoyed optimism in their opponents.

That, however, was then. This, after nary a whisper of public debate, is now. To recycle a phrase of the Reagan-era nuclear priesthood, a crucial but brief "window of vulnerability" for the Bomb Design Tribe looks to be closing shut.

As they stare into the fire today, what creative flashes do members of the tribe see? Officially, no new nuclear weapons systems are in formal development, but that doesn't prevent the sort of dreaming that costs millions. Over the last decade, for example, the Bomb Design Tribe has openly pined for "Third Generation" weapons that focus nuclear energy into killer beams traveling thousands of miles through space. The dream apparently still lives: The 1994 DOE budget provided for advanced study of a Third Generation-type high-power radio frequency warhead, meant to fry enemy electronics (and people) with microwaves beamed to earth.

The same budget shows entries for the development of three other new nuclear weapons systems, including a precision low-yield warhead. This would be a "low-collateral damage. . .flexible bomb for the B-2" bomber, according to Air Force documents. Last year, a Livermore weaponeer appeared on CNN television discussing a low-yield "earth penetrating" nuclear weapon that could blast, say, Saddam Hussein's bunker without eradicating all of Baghdad. Activists goaded Congress to outlaw lab work on such "bunker-busters"--but only for a year.

And this year? An unfazed Bomb Design Tribe and its Pentagon allies duly erased low-yield weapons from the 1995 DOE budget, asking instead for money for "engineering development and technology demonstrations of new weapon systems [including an] ICBM replacement warhead, gravity-bomb studies, and enhanced safety warheads for the Navy."

These nuclear weapons projects are, of course, only those that are a) far enough along to have their own names and budgets, and b) not among "black budget" projects considered too secret even to be listed. An idea gets to this stage only after much experimentation, so the Bomb Design Tribe continues to push, Cold War or no, for new design and testing tools.

Here's where the National Ignition Facility and its $3 billion's worth of cousin projects fit in. With actual nuclear test explosions outlawed, weaponeers want to use superlasers and other aids to produce the effects of nuclear reactions. In short, the tribe wants new capital equipment in order to advance the cutting edge of its business. Finished, NIF will be the largest single military project ever built at Lawrence Livermore, and a magnet for more weapons talent, money, and work.

No more then will Livermore's weaponeers need to fear those plans some in Congress had for them in Clinton's early days, proposals that would have cut their lab out of weapons design, shifting it all to Los Alamos. As a concerned weaponeer named Kent Johnson wanted me to know, without healthy rivalry, bombmaking creativity might go stale. "It's been part of the vitality of the system to have competing ideas. Basically, they [at Los Alamos] wouldn't have anybody to talk to."

Long ago, Kent Johnson was a Cornell graduate student "modestly active" in anti-Vietnam War protests. He arrived at Livermore with "a residuum of ethical concern" and zero belief that weapons physics might be "a patriotic thing to do." He hasn't changed his mind. "I look at it now as an interesting job." A bearded, friendly fellow who votes Democratic, Kent Johnson embodies the outward diversity of lab culture; no Dr. Strangelove clones here. What does unite the weaponeers is a culture of low-key rationalspeak that finds joy in problem-solving and accepts as a given that nuclear weaponry is a worthy pursuit making America safer. Since serious doubters naturally flee the business, tribe veterans are self-selected to agree on the big things. Like the tribe's basic need to survive.

And so, after two decades, Johnson is enough of a loyalist that today he worries how budget cuts will affect the lab's ability to recruit young minds to his "interesting" work. It heartened him when a recent weaponeer job posting drew 40 applicants. And he eagerly expects the NIF to attract fresh talent. "I really believe we can recruit people," he says with can-do vigor, "if we have money."

How much money? This year more than $1.5 billion is openly budgeted for nuclear weapons R&D. The nation's nuclear labs are united in pressing hard for up to $300 million more, Kent Johnson says. "That is the number we should have to be doing our job properly."

With no evil empire to fight, what "job" is left that costs so much? It has been given a name to reflect changing times: stockpile stewardship. As stewards of the nuclear stockpile, the national labs are officially said to be ensuring the "safety and reliability" of those warheads we haven't yet dismantled--and who could argue with that goal?

Best to clarify, however, what the words "safety and reliability" mean in tribespeak. A safe and reliable bomb, to a nuclear tactician, is one that can be counted on to explode upon impact, with just the right amount of death-dealing effect.

In tribespeak, then, an unsafe bomb is one that will not go off.

An unreliable bomb is one that will go off, but spreads less destruction. (In fact, a bomb that proves merely 10 percent underpowered is termed "unreliable.")

An arsenal made up of such "unsafe" and "unreliable" bombs is dangerous--so goes tribe logic--because if our stockpile contains potential duds, our enemies are less likely to be afraid of us. We will have lost our nuclear deterrent.

As America's nuclear stockpile ages, some warheads are likely to become duds. It could take 20 years or 100; weaponeers aren't sure. Still, this is why the tribe argues that stockpile stewardship must include the means to research, develop, and virtual-test new nuclear weapons. At a minimum, they say, we must replace aging weapons with fresh, credible ones; and, if a new nuclear monster darkens our horizon, we should be able to threaten reprisal with even-better weapon designs already "on the shelf" and ready to manufacture.

This is more than lab cafeteria chat; it is affirmed by President Clinton, whose directive requires the Bomb Design Tribe to stay ready to run underground tests with no more than six months' notice. The president's own Nuclear Posture Review Team, headed by Secretary of Defense William Perry, recently ticked off these "requirements" of the nation's labs:

  • "Demonstrate capability to refabricate and certify weapons types in enduring stockpile."
  • "Maintain capability to design, fabricate, and certify new warheads."
Last October a Republican congressman asked Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch if all this was a "hedge in case reform in Russia fails. Does this mean that retention of the U.S. ability to reconstitute our nuclear force is a priority?"

"It is," answered Deutch. "The flexibility to upload is included in our program, yes, sir." Translation: In the last year, America has, without much hoopla, decided to remain a quick step away from being able to fight an all-out nuclear war with some nation like the former Soviet Union.

Flexibility to upload. These words must ring reassuringly to a Bomb Design Tribe worried about its future, for this latest "posture" springs from the Cold War logic that gave meaning to the tribe for nearly all its life, a logic called MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. With a world dominated by two distrusting superpowers, Americans assumed the Soviets would not incinerate us if we could respond in terrifying kind. As long as keeping abreast of Soviet weaponry was seen as the key to peace, the tribe could pursue its driving quest for the next Bomb.

Out of this quest, naturally enough, grew the Bomb Design Tribe's central ritual: the test. Each mushroom cloud and desert earthquake was a finger wagged at the Soviet enemy and, at the same time, a bonding ceremony for the tribe. After interviewing 86 Lawrence Livermore denizens, MIT anthropologist Hugh Gusterson concluded that testing was "a rite of passage" for young weapons designers. For elders, it built stature and gave them "a feeling of power over their weapons."

But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the traditional basis of tribal logic. No longer is America sitting on one end of a MAD seesaw. Our greatest nuclear threat today is proliferation: the desires--and abilities--of so many smaller countries to join the Nuclear Club. Which makes it only logical to ask: How does continuing to study, design, and virtual-test a "better" bomb defend America against nuclear proliferation?

It does the opposite, answers Ted Taylor, an early Los Alamos physicist who turned renegade against his tribe. At the very moment when we must remove incentives for other nations to develop nuclear arsenals, "We continue to do something that is insane, which is trying to develop new types of nuclear weapons," Taylor told me on the phone from his New York home. "We're strongly motivating other countries and terrorists to do the same. The last thing we're doing is deterring the North Koreas of the world. We're saying to them: 'We're more secure with nuclear weapons, but you're not.' How could that be true?"

As deputy scientific director of the Pentagon's Defense Atomic Support Agency in the mid-1960s, Taylor oversaw many a nuclear test. No more. In our proliferating world, he says, any nuclear attack might well be anonymous, arriving tucked inside Gucci luggage instead of in a nose cone. "Deterrence doesn't work when you don't know who's launching a nuclear attack," Taylor says. "And deterrence doesn't work when the people doing it are interspersed with their own populace, as are terrorists."

For decades now, the Holy Grail against the evils of proliferation has been a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty honored the world over. A test ban treaty is, in fact, being written in Geneva, making the mythical suddenly seem possible. But for any treaty to hold, all parties must demonstrate good faith. This is why Taylor and other test-ban advocates lobby so fervently for the Bomb Design Tribe's rapid extinction. Virtual-test tools like the NIF laser "undermine the primary purpose of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is to cut off new nuclear weapons development," stresses Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit working towards the ban and the elimination of lab testing. "We can't expect other nations to give up nukes if we continue to legitimize them."

Cabasso's group joined many others to lobby against NIF, bombarding Secretary of Energy O'Leary with letters, taking out newspaper ads, and convincing two California representatives, Democrats Ron Dellums and Pete Stark, to withdraw their unconditional support. But the anti-NIF side ran "up against the nuclear military-industrial complex, campaigning as if their lives depended on it," Cabasso says. "I guarantee you Livermore lab people were back in Washington several times a month pressuring politicians and arms control groups."

When Hazel O'Leary finally gave the thumbs-up on a sunny, festive day at the Livermore lab, she predicted NIF will help ensure both U.S. national security and "economic security."

"Hazel O'Leary doesn't get it," fumes Jackie Cabasso. "If the United States truly wants nonproliferation, it should begin the step-by-step process of complete nuclear disarmament."

And what if one can't, in this dangerous world, go so far as to advocate complete nuclear disarmament as the best route to U.S. security? How, then, are our Stockpile Stewards to keep up with those supposedly deterring but deteriorating warheads? I put that question, the day I visited Lawrence Livermore, to another dissenting refugee from the Bomb Design Tribe, Hugh DeWitt, who still does peaceful physics at the lab. DeWitt's answer was elegantly simple: "Any time we have a doubt about one of our warheads, why don't we just dispose of it, dust off the old blueprints, and replace it with one built exactly like it?" What rational enemy in today's world, he asked, would gamble against the potency of a nuclear stockpile maintained that way? America need never spend another nickel on new weapons testing and design.

Ted Taylor, for one, wonders why any rational scientist wouldn't be relieved to put aside Bomb design work. But then Taylor speaks as if he left behind not a rational culture but a spellbound cult. "We were fascinated by abstract violence on a huge scale. I became addicted to nuclear weapons work. It gave me a sense of great power. I remember dreams about a weapons design that I'd been working on--when it failed it was a nightmare. When it succeeded it was a high, that sense of: 'I'm good at this. It's my bomb.' Except we never called them 'bombs.' We called them 'gadgets.'"

Rather than "flexibility to upload," Ted Taylor wants a United Nations-arranged, mutually verified, global abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2001. Short of that, even unilateral nuclear disarmament, he says, would be better than nothing. "Even if Saddam smuggled a nuclear weapon into the United States and killed Americans, our responding by dropping an H-bomb on Baghdad is absolutely unacceptable. But that is our policy now. We threaten to kill thousands, millions of innocent people not party to any dispute. That's mass murder."

Bottom line, Ted Taylor believes that having nuclear weapons for any reason is "fundamentally immoral." In saying so, he drops the cool technical jargon of his former tribemates, revealing the fire of a convert. A conversion more profound is hard to imagine. On November 15, 1950, as his daughter was being born on the other side of the country, Ted Taylor, nuclear weaponeer, sat in Washington, D.C., drawing circles on a map indicating precisely the devastation his latest creation was capable of raining on a distant enemy. "I remember being disappointed when none of the circles included all of Moscow." On July 9, 1986, Ted Taylor, nuclear dissident, found himself in Moscow's Red Square. He "looked around, saw perhaps a couple of thousand happy-looking people, including several wedding parties, walking about, enjoying the sights." Ted Taylor wept.

Carol Alonso works today as a special assistant in the office of the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, helping to smooth her people's path into the future. Given that Jesse Helms heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his party holds the votes, the comprehensive test ban crowd is fast losing optimism. They see a Bomb Design Tribe again on the ascendance.

It is a tribe that all along kept faith by budgeting for a revolving menu of new nuclear weapons systems R&D. It pleads for hundreds of millions more dollars each year, having resisted the notion that even one lab might abandon weapons design work. It pushes, with the help of Congress, to induce more young scientists to become weaponeers, thereby replenishing the tribe's own ranks. And it verges on getting the "virtual" nuclear test tools needed to replenish its central rituals.

The day after Republicans won control of Congress, I called Carol Alonso to ask what the National Ignition Facility might mean for the lab. "That's a heavy political question," she answered. "So far no funds have been appropriated for it. We hope [O'Leary's approval] means the country will eventually build that facility. If so, we would be converting a lot of people who would be doing a lot of weapons design work and other related areas over to that area. The technologies that will spin off from the laser facility will seed a lot of U.S. industries in ways I can't even tell you. It will be good for the whole country."

But of course NIF is also a weapons design facility, I prodded. "It is partly a nuclear weapons testing facility, but not so much as people proclaim," she said. "Ten percent at most would be used to examine concepts related to nuclear weapons design."

Nothing since then has interrupted the upward arc of the Bomb Design Tribe. During the late December flurry of budget cuts by the Clinton administration, NIF, Lawrence Livermore, and the DOE itself were all rumored to be on the chopping block, but all emerged, for now, alive. Even more heartening to a weaponeer, when the 78 incoming Republican members of Congress met for orientation, H-bomb "father" Edward Teller was invited to pitch for a return to the Star Wars dream. If other Republican proposals pan out, the tribe may even shed the Department of Energy altogether and relocate in the Department of Defense, the better to focus on nuclear weapons and their design.

Direct employment by the Pentagon, a well-funded, redoubled attempt at the nuclear space weapons of Star Wars. That is what many Bomb Design Tribe members are now seeing when they stare into the fire. And the longer they look, the more likely they will find something else bright and alluring, the thing they want most of all.

As I was told by Carol Alonso when we last spoke, superlasers and "virtual" tools can't replace the old days at the Nevada Test Site, when the fortunate few were awarded the real thing, magnificently powerful nuclear explosions. "But it is better than nothing. It does keep certain skills alive. Whether it's good enough is a debatable question." After a pause she added, "Take any nuclear weapons scientist in the country and ask, 'Would you rather do underground tests or have this facility?'" In Carol Alonso's tone I detected wistfulness and, maybe as well, a tribe's resurgent hope.

"They would say test."

David Beers, a former senior editor at Mother Jones, is working on a book for Doubleday on the rise and fall of Cold War suburbia. Keay Davidson and Holly Lloyd provided invaluable assistance in the reporting of this story.

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