In May 1984, I spent a week among a group of young scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal facility for the design of nuclear weapons in a dry valley about forty miles east of San Francisco. Theirs was a world of blue jeans, Coke bottles and top-secret research that took place six and seven days a week, often all night long. Their labours had helped inspire President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ speech and were now aimed at bringing his vision to life. Their goal was to channel the power of nuclear explosions into deadly beams that would flash through space to destroy enemy missiles. They worked not only on weapons but on super computers, communication devices and other vital links for the creation of a defensive shield.
Livermore is one of two federal facilities in the United States for the design of nuclear weapons. It makes no production-line warheads. Instead, the weapons are imagined, sketched on blackboards and modelled on computers. Months or years can pass before Livermore decides to build a prototype and ship its parts over the Sierra Nevada mountains for assembly at a government-owned patch of desert in the neighbouring state of Nevada, where it is then exploded underground in a carefully monitored test. If successful, blueprints of the weapon might be distributed to the various factories around the country that make warheads for the nation’s bombers, submarines and silos.
The first weapons lab in the United States was Los Alamos, built in the mountains of New Mexico amid the exigencies of World War Two, which, as part of the Manhattan Project, gave birth to the first nuclear weapon. And the other was here, Livermore, built up from an abandoned naval air station in 1952. Today the lab employs nearly 8,000 people and has a budget of more than 800 million dollars a year. These two labs are at the centre of an industry that, in developing, producing, storing and planning for the use of nuclear weapons, involves well over 200,000 people and has an annual budget of more than thirty-five billion dollars. Every day, about eight new warheads roll off the assembly line. And while old weapons are continually being retired, the overall ‘stockpile’ is steadily increasing. There are currently 26,000 warheads in the American nuclear arsenal. By 1990, there are expected to be 32,000. In a glossy brochure issued during its twenty-fifth anniversary, Livermore claims to have designed nine out of ten of the strategic warheads in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.