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Lawrence Livermore National Lab: The Smartest Square Mile on Earth

The world-famous Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory ensures that our country’s nuclear weapons are safe and sound. It also makes high-tech discoveries at breakneck speed. Diablo takes a behind-the-scenes look at the powerhouse right in our backyard.


Bruno Van Wonterghem, Ph.D., is the operations manager of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest laser facility.


At first glance, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) looks and feels like any other discreet yet friendly business complex. About a mile south of Interstate 580 along Livermore’s eastern border, the campus—which spans one square mile—sits adjacent to a hushed, neutral-hued suburban neighborhood. Perfectly manicured plant life paints the landscape green.

“We’re like our own little city,” says Lynda Seaver, the lab’s director of public affairs. Indeed, LLNL, with a population of just under 7,000 employees, has its own law enforcement and fire departments and even a health center. Its roads are smoothly paved, and workers zip from one end to the other in ubiquitous hybrids. Other than the men in camouflage uniforms guarding the entrance, there is little indication that this East Bay institution is responsible for ensuring the security of the United States’ nuclear presence, directly impacting the delicate scales of global politics.

Visiting here is like traveling down an intellectually magnificent rabbit hole, with one bustling hub of scientific activity and experimentation leading to another. Of all the cutting-edge programs at LLNL, perhaps the most head-spinning is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the largest laser facility ever built.

To reach it, visitors walk through a generic lobby and low-hanging hallways that open into white caverns. Across a space the size of three football fields, 192 tubes transport highly amplified laser beams, converging at a small target inside a gigantic chamber (which you may have caught glimpses of in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness). Within that target bay, scientists are pursuing the elusive goal of creating fusion ignition in a lab setting—which, if achieved, would release a reaction that mimics the energy generated by the sun.

The NIF utilizes 192 tubes to aim laser beams at a two-millimeter-long target.

After almost 20 years of planning and construction, NIF opened in 2009 to explore this potential; to this day, costs have been upward of $9 billion. If NIF does succeed in igniting a large-scale, efficient fusion reaction, “it [would be] the universe’s ultimate energy source,” says the facility’s operations manager, Bruno Van Wonterghem, Ph.D. “It’s the heart of creation and the heart of destruction at the same time.”

Other research pursuits at LLNL are equally leading-edge, if somewhat more graspable. For example, a short drive away from NIF is the nanotechnology lab, where scientists design brain-implant devices. This effort, too, was born of weapons research, but like most discoveries here, it has civilian applications that go far beyond national security.

Elsewhere, at the Center for Engineered Materials and Manufacturing, Lawrence Livermore researchers—in collaboration with UC Berkeley, the University of Rochester, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—have discovered how to use laser-generated images to build complex 3-D parts in a fraction of the time it once took. Researchers hope that this approach—called volumetric printing—will radically transform and streamline the burgeoning field of 3-D printing.

“[LLNL] is a treasure trove of scientific innovation and ingenuity, not just on matters of national security, but also on day-to-day things,” says Ellen Tauscher, chairwoman of the lab’s board of governors and a former East Bay congressional representative. Tauscher also served in the Obama administration as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have designed every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal, while simultaneously spurring the development of supercomputers and pioneering scientific advancement in a number of fields. With a $1.5 billion 2019 annual budget proposal, LLNL has access to resources that few other research institutions share, making it one of the foremost science and technology meccas in the world. Work done here has led to three Nobel prizes.

As Seaver says, “It’s been called the smartest square mile on earth.”


Energy research, including the study of renewable resources such as solar power, is a key part of LLNL’s mission.

The Nuclear Era

The country’s current nuclear arsenal entered service between the 1960s and 1980s. Decades later, these weapons systems have been stockpiled for much longer than ever anticipated.

There is an effort underway to refurbish or replace a number of warheads and delivery vehicles in the air, sea, and land nuclear triad, called the Life Extension program. Each year, it’s the responsibility of the lab’s director—a position currently held by William H. Goldstein, a longtime lab scientist who has helmed LLNL since 2014—along with leaders at the other national labs to sign an assurance that the active stockpile of several thousand nuclear weapons is safe and secure—or ready to go.

LLNL’s history is tied to the country’s growth as a nuclear power. The lab first opened its doors in 1952, at a time when World War II reparations were still being made and the nuclear arms race was in its early phases. That same year, the United Kingdom joined the United States and Russia as the world’s third nuclear-armed country, and the U.S. detonated its first hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. The University of California managed the lab, which was created partially to spur friendly competition with and provide peer review for Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project and the world’s first nuclear weapons. (This remained the arrangement when the university entered into a partnership with the energy and engineering firms Bechtel, URS Corporation, and Babcock and Wilcox—an LLC that also manages Los Alamos lab—in 2007.)

Longtime lab scientist Benjamin Santer, Ph.D., is known for his influential work related to climate change.

In 1992, with the Cold War finally over, LLNL’s mission adjusted from nuclear proliferation to stockpile stewardship. Ensuring the safety and reliability of weapons in service was made more complex that same year, when the United States began observing a unilateral moratorium on nuclear explosive testing.

Maintaining bombs involves constructing complex computer codes to model explosions at an atomic scale, which requires massive, state-of-the-art supercomputers. Thus, LLNL has often been at the forefront of another race: to build the smartest mainframes. Other offshoot research areas include biomedicine and forensics, additive manufacturing, energy technology, mass spectrometry, and atmospheric science; Benjamin Santer, Ph.D., an atmospheric scientist at the lab since 1992, contributed significantly to early findings that showed human impacts on climate patterns.

“[LLNL employees] believe they are serving their country the same way a soldier does—they’re just not wearing a uniform,” Seaver says.


Next-Door Neighbors

East of the lab’s main campus and about a mile-and-a-half from the city of Tracy’s southern border, a second location spans 7,000 acres of hilly countryside. Known as Site 300, this area is used as a non-nuclear explosives test facility. Here, scientists assess how various materials behave under extreme conditions and, essentially, simulate isolated components of weapon blasts.

But while the explosions may not involve radioactive materials, their impacts do reverberate throughout the community. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified both the lab’s main campus and Site 300 as Superfunds, a designation reserved for the nation’s contaminated habitats.

Last year, LLNL officials applied for a permit to increase the size of blasts from the current limit of 100 pounds a day and 1,000 pounds a year to 1,000 and 7,500 respectively. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the authority responsible for issuing the permit, held a public hearing last summer that, according to news reports, drew upward of 100 Tracy residents, most of whom opposed the increase out of fear the blasts would cause environmental damage and excessive noise.

The air district issued a preliminary approval but doesn’t have a timeline for a final answer. “No decisions … will be made until all comments received have been considered … and additional analysis is completed,” Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer Dave Warner wrote in an email.

When Site 300 was first established, the surrounding area was only sparsely populated, but as Tracy continues to expand, new residential projects are planned for the eastern boundary of Site 300. Real estate developers have expressed concerns about the open-air blasts, as has Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a local watchdog group and nuclear policy center.

“Part of what we do is educating the public on what’s going on so they can play a democratic role in the decision-making,” Kelley says. “Every aspect of the nuclear weapon cycle has waste, spills, and releases that impact workers, the environment, and the community.”


Nukes on Our Horizon?

While the lab may be privately managed, it is government owned. “We operate at the pleasure of the administration and Congress,” Seaver says. The legislative and executive branches not only allocate funding but also steer priorities. Each administration issues its own Nuclear Posture Review, a policy manifesto that is brought to bear at places like LLNL and Los Alamos.

The U.S. nuclear strategy is a shifting doctrine blown by the unpredictable winds of geopolitical maneuvering and technological advancements. The document explicitly reserves the right to resume “nuclear explosive testing” if “necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” and at no point mentions the 1968 U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which obligates signatories to move toward disarmament.

As such, LLNL’s funding is the highest it’s ever been. The 2019 budget request increased $92 million from 2018. A large percentage of that money will go toward national security activities.

“The best deterrence is a safe, reliable, and effective [stockpile] and a lack of testing,” Tauscher explains.


A Lasting Part of the East Bay

With all the globally consequential activities taking place here, LLNL also remains deeply rooted in the community, adding considerably to the local economy and even immortalizing its hometown in the annals of science history.

This happened in 2000, when scientists at LLNL, along with Russian collaborators, discovered a new element. The periodic table now includes Lv, an abbreviation for Livermorium, named after the lab’s headquarters.

Similarly, science has been woven into the city’s fabric. The Livermore seal includes images of a cowboy riding a horse, a vine of grapes, and the atomic symbol with an L at the heart. The current mayor of Livermore is even a former chemist.

“The characteristics of this part of the East Bay have been shaped by the thousands of people who have worked at the lab and live here,” Tauscher says. “You could say that the East Bay grew up around the lab.”


The Brain Trust

One of the lab’s most exciting areas of study is optogenetics—an emerging technology that targets brain cells using flashes of light. Advancements in this field are revolutionizing neuroscience, identifying the brain pathways involved in psychiatric and neurological diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s.

Now, a collaboration between Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and researchers at the University of Michigan and New York University has shown the possibility of controlling multiple brain functions at once using multicolor light, further illuminating the workings of the brain. In fact, a number of companies are pioneering human trials, which means it may not be long before doctors are able to turn off psychiatric disorders with the flip of a switch.


Lab Creations

You might be surprised to learn how many things that we use every day were actually born at LLNL. Here are a few:


Google Earth's Images
That super-sharp satellite imagery that captures our whole planet? It’s the brainchild of a lab scientist named Walter Scott, who developed the technology while working on the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka the Star Wars program) of the 1980s. Today, we can summon the world on our computers, thanks to Scott’s ingenuity.


Advanced Auto Safety
If your car warns you when you are coming dangerously close to another vehicle—as most modern cars are equipped to do, using a high-tech collision-avoidance system—that’s because lab scientist Tom McEwan invented a “micro-impulse radar” that can tell you how far away an object is and how fast it’s moving.


The Mood Ring
OK, this may not be a lifesaving invention, but it has given generations of kids endless amusement. In the 1960s, a lab researcher named Robert Parker studied how certain materials change color when exposed to heat, which led to one curious commercial application: the mood ring. Invented in 1975, the novelty item quickly became one of the era’s most popular fads.


Visit the Lab

Because much of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s work involves national security, entry is strictly regulated. However, the public is welcome to visit the Discovery Center, located just outside the lab’s gates off Greenville Road. Here, visitors learn about ongoing research programs, experimental tools, and more.

Additionally, teachers and students are invited to participate in the lab’s Fun With Science Field Trips, free of charge to local elementary schools. The program, designed for fourth- and fifth-grade classes, is offered on Monday through Friday mornings during the school year. During the field trip, students enjoy a combination of science displays, group activities, and hands-on experiments.


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