Jonathan Ventura – April 17, 2014

Most of us know of Los Alamos National Laboratory, but little about it. Jonathan Ventura, the Director of the Customer Interface Office of the Laboratory’s nuclear weapons program filled Y’s Men in on April 17.

Ventura was introduced by co-worker Quinn Fatherley, the son of Y’s Man Bob Fatherley.

Ventura began by saying that LANL was established in 1943 by J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves to “build the two atomic weapons that were used to end World War II – Little Boy, a uranium device dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Fat Man, the plutonium device dropped three days later on Nagasaki.

The Laboratory employs about 10,000 people, including 2,200 Ph.Ds. – more than any other place in the US. It encompasses about 40 square miles – about the same as Washington, DC.

Their mission is national security, using “the best science, technology and engineering the nation can afford.”LANL must assure the President that our country’s nuclear stockpile is “safe, secure and reliable.”Every year the Laboratory Director writes a letter to the president to that effect, and, by law, that letter cannot be revised by any other person.

This “challenge”is complicated by the fact that the US has not tested a nuclear bomb since 1992 and that we have not produced new weapons since 1989.

Ventura reviewed the eight facilities that constitute LANL. These include a center the size of a football field filled with classified super computers; a High Explosives Lab that trains our military before they are sent to a war zone; a facility (TA-55) that makes plutonium  pits or primaries; DARHT that allows LANL scientists to peer inside a detonation  of a mock nuclear device and LANSCE that produces radioactive isotopes for medical diagnostics and treatments. LANL has a $2 billion budget, half of which is dedicated to its weapons programs. Non-weapons projects include the development of plutonium batteries such as those used in the Mars Curiosity Rover, and a laser on the same vehicle that checks for chemical elements. This laser has been repurposed and is now being used by the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Talking about their mission, he said the US stockpile consists of four devices designed by Los Alamos, two used by the Air Force and two by the Navy. The stockpile is the oldest we’ve ever had, and the smallest since the Eisenhower administration. In response to a question he responded that the stockpile’s yield is the lowest it’s been, but is compensated for by the fact that the “delivery platforms”are increasingly precise.

He said that a nuclear weapon has about 6,000 parts, and in order to assure the president of the safety, security and reliability of our stockpile, they refurbish the arsenal in what are multi-billion dollar programs. They replace like with like, and joked that one of the devices has vacuum tubes.

He said this task means that when President wants to use one it “must absolutely work,”but, absent presidential authorization, it “must not go off.”And they must do this without testing.

The Air Force and Navy conduct yearly tests in which the warhead is replaced with sensors and diagnostics to provide a sense of “how the physics package interacts with Air force and Navy vehicles.”

During Q&A Ventura stated that Russian nuclear weapons security is more physical and less electronic than the US’s; he offered a personal view about Iran (noting the Laboratory does not take positions on political or policy matters), that the international community believes Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons technology; and that since 9/11 security at the laboratory has changed to reflect new threats

Commenting on the value of the Laboratory, he stated that “Nuclear weapons and their support systems are an important investment in the cornerstone of US national security, as it has been since 1945, and I don’t anticipate that will change any time soon as the world remains a dangerous and fairly unstable place.”