New Director Shifts Balance Of Power At Livermore Lab

LIVERMORE, CALIF.-Last summer Edward Teller, founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, took his protégé, Livermore theoretical physicist Lowell Wood, to the White House. There they met with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush to discuss Wood's latest idea for a weapon to defend the country against incoming Soviet missiles. Joining them was John Nuckolls, a nuclear physicist who a few months earlier had become the director of Livermore, the Department of

Aug 7, 1989
Ta Heppenheimer
LIVERMORE, CALIF.-Last summer Edward Teller, founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, took his protégé, Livermore theoretical physicist Lowell Wood, to the White House. There they met with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush to discuss Wood's latest idea for a weapon to defend the country against incoming Soviet missiles. Joining them was John Nuckolls, a nuclear physicist who a few months earlier had become the director of Livermore, the Department of Energy's northern California weapons lab.

Today, a year later, the fate of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)-and with it the "Brilliant Pebbles" approach that Wood has proposed-remains an open question, as Congress debates whether the country needs and can afford such a military system. But many scientists say that the July 1988 meeting in the White House was much more than a technical briefing on Wood's idea for a lightweight, computer-driven, high-speed projectile to help defend the country. Nuckolls' presence at the meeting, they worry, was intended as an endorsement of a heightened political role for the 37-year-old laboratory-change that could jeopardize the lab's reputation for high-quality science and its ability to attract brilliant young talent. Such a role would also upset the traditional balance between those who advocate exotic new weapons systems and those who favor gradual improvements in existing hardware by giving the upper hand to the visionaries.

In addition, critics fear that Nuckolls' own style will discourage any public airing of these issues. The 58-year-old physicist, who has spent his entire professional career at Livermore, is known as an extremely cautious administrator who shuns the limelight.

In the past, previous Livermore directors had tried to maintain at least the appearance of impartiality toward SDI. The lab prides itself on the quality of its science, and its re- searchers are not supposed to have a political agenda. Nuckolls' immediate predecessor as Livermore chief, nuclear chemist Roger Batzel, had made it a point not to accompany Teller on his trips to the center of political power; indeed, Batzel endorsed implicitly that independence by slapping down a senior Livermore scientist who complained that Teller was overselling Livermore's Excalibur X-ray laser program in his visits to the president. Teller was visiting Reagan as a private citizen-not as a representative of the weapons lab-Batzel told the senior scientist, Roy Woodruff, when Woodruff asked Batzel to clarify Teller's comments.

Not An Endorsement

Nuckolls acknowledges that the flak over Batzel's rebuff of Woodruff's complaint influenced his decision to meet with Reagan. "Given the controversies over previous laboratory-White House interactions, there was broad consensus that the director should be present for the briefing," he replied in one of two three-page letters written in response to a request by The Scientist for an interview. But he insists that his actions should not be read as an unqualified endorsement of any particular aspect of the SDI program, pointing out in his second written reply that "I have been noticeably absent in the public debate [on the X-ray laser] and am a strong proponent of greatly enhanced experimental understanding."

But Roy Woodruff takes quite a different view of the meeting. To Woodruff, the former head of Livermore's weapons programs and now director of the lab's much smaller arms verification programs, Nuckolls' visit to the White House is a clear sign that the head of the lab has become an unabashed booster of the latest wrinkle in SDI.

"The mere fact that Nuckolls lent his presence indicates approval of what they were doing," he says. "A meeting with the president would normally signal a major policy change--for example, the abrogation of the antiballistic missile treaty because of the feasibility of 'Brilliant Pebbles.' "

Other scientists, including Livermore veterans Ray Kidder and Hugh DeWitt, are equally troubled by Nuckolls' endorsement of what they see as a grab bag of untested ideas about how to defend the country from nuclear attack. Proponents of such theories have always existed at the murky intersection of theoretical physics and national defense. Referred to by Livermore observers as "radicals," this faction is widely seen as comprising those researchers who probe the extremes of the physically possible through intricate calculations and computer modeling.

Historically, the views of the radicals have been balanced by the men and women who must make the bombs work. This latter group, known as "conservatives," consists of those who have wrestled with the exceedingly difficult job of taking an idea and turning it into a usable weapon.

"The progressives are very important," says Ray Kidder, a 33-year veteran of the lab and a prominent figure in the international physics community, who prefers the term "progressives" to "radicals." "They are the source of new ideas. But the conservatives, with their greater knowledge of nuclear weapons, are also important. There should be friendly competition between the two sides, not a hostile competition."

With the radicals having asserted their control at Livermore, some critics worry that the lab faces a future in which political pull might count for more than technical achievement. "The nature of the place has changed," says William Morgan, a former group leader in the X-ray laser program who is concerned about current research efforts. "In the 1970s there was a lot going on outside of weapons, but in the 1980s it became far more weapons oriented."

The change, he believes, has made the lab "like any other defense contractor." Morgan and his wife, physicist Barbara Whitten, left Livermore two years ago, because, he says, "we were tired of working in a weapons laboratory" rather than a creative scientific environment.

Some scientists say that the changes are beginning to show up in the type of person attracted to Livermore. "Recent events make it a little harder to recruit good people," says Hugh DeWitt, a senior Livermore physicist and occasional critic of the lab. "I think that the lab now has a very tarnished reputation because it is so blatant in selling new weapons. I know many bright young scientists who in the past might well have considered a job at Livermore just for the chance to do interesting physics who will now avoid coming here."

But philosophy isn't the only stumbling block to restoring Livermore's past balance of power and, by extension, preserving its reputation for scientific excellence. Part of the problem, say his critics, is Nuckolls' personal style of leadership.

"There was a lot of anticipation and excitement about a new director," says one senior manager. "But there were those from Physics Division who warned, 'Don't expect a decision maker.' Nuckolls is a Hamlet. He takes a problem and seeks a solution from the guy whose task it is to solve this problem. Then he hires an outside consultant. Then he asks people in other parts of the lab for their opinion. Then he forms a committee and starts reading tea leaves or something."

A major restructuring of the lab's management is another example of Nuckolls' deliberate style. In his first year he's nearly doubled the number of associate directors, a group that numbered a dozen under Batzel. Nuckolls says that the changes "are being driven by global economic competition." But critics say the in- creased number of top managers reflects a need "to get people to help him make up his mind."

Nuckolls disputes this description of his leadership. In a written statement, he notes that "my review of the past 15 months shows that the majority of my decisions have been made rather rapidly." At the same time, his letter cites both internal and external factors that may have delayed certain activities, noting that "the shock waves to the organization from the Dingell hearing [a congressional hearing held last year on the sudden termination of an undercover drug investigation within the lab] and the electrical fire [that caused extensive damage to equipment last winter] have also slowed things down."

Nuckolls has generally avoided public discussions of his policies. He has refused repeated requests for interviews with several major news organizations. And he was a last- minute "no-show" at a symposium on the relationship between Livermore and its overseer, the University of California system, that was held last winter in San Francisco during a joint meeting of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The meeting explored the at-times-contentious relationship between Livermore and the university, including attempts by some faculty to cut the lab's academic ties or impose greater oversight. Organizers of the symposium say they were never informed of his sudden cancellation, which a lab spokesman attributed to "a sudden case of the flu."

Located less than an hour's drive east of San Francisco, Livermore has always shared an uneasy existence with the shifting politics of the region. It was founded in 1952 at the urging of Teller as an alternative to Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of the Manhattan Project. Nuclear weapons have always consumed the lion's share of Livermore's budget, now around $1 billion, although its efforts have not always succeeded in bolstering the nation's defense.

In the 1960s, the lab emerged as a major center for research on controlled fusion, a source of enormous energy that quickly attracted the attention of the military but whose promise lies, at best, decades in the future. In the 1970s the lab was heavily involved in work on the ill-fated neutron bomb. And the lab's principal project for magnetic fusion, the $246 million Mirror Fusion Test Facility, was mothballed in 1986 one day after its dedication.

In contrast, some of the lab's more speculative activities have flourished in recent years. These areas include inertial confinement fusion, a field that Nuckolls helped to pioneer, as well as research in X-ray lasers and other SDI-related technologies. A prominent figure in many of these activities has been Lowell Wood, who began the development of large lasers for fusion research and whose colleagues, notably Peter Hagelstein and George Chapline, invented the X-ray laser.

The combination of Nuckolls and Wood is as familiar to physicists at Livermore as the duo of Watson and Crick is to molecular biologists. Wood has built up a reputation as a wild man in the course of directing the lab's center for speculative research that goes by the name of O Group. Team members talk openly of such ideas as fusion-powered spaceships, supercomputers on a wafer of silicon, and laser weapons that depend on concepts unsupported by physical evidence.

Like Wood, Nuckolls began as a protégé of Teller's. He went on to spend nearly a quarter-century working in inertial confinement fusion. In 1984 he was named associate director of physics, responsible for all physics programs at the lab. In April 1988 he succeeded Batzel as director.

Although Nuckolls denied repeated requests for a face-to-face interview for this article, he writes glowingly about his plans to create "a 21st-century laboratory." Such a laboratory, he writes, must be "capable of successfully meeting the challenges that the next century will face...such as preventing major wars, exhaustion of the world's oil and gas resources, global greenhouse warming, and the mastery of molecular biology and medicine." The cost of addressing these issues, he estimates, will require "an increase in laboratory capacity by a factor of perhaps 10."

Nuckolls' broad vision, while offering an ambitious agenda for growth, is hardly reassuring to his critics. They see, in its tendency to over promise, a style very similar to that of his colleague, Lowell Wood, and his mentor, Edward Teller. It is a picture that they believe could threaten the integrity and future of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

T.A. Heppenheimer is an aerospace engineer and freelance writer in Southern California.