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Los Alamos Laboratory Remains Busy 6 Decades After First Atomic Bomb Test - 2003-08-06

High in the mountains of northern New Mexico surrounded by ancient Native American landmarks is a kind of campus of scientists that is unique in the world. The Los Alamos National Laboratory began 60 years ago as a secret World War II mission to beat the Germans in the development of the atom bomb. It was called "The Manhattan Project." Since that time, its initial mission accomplished, the Los Alamos Laboratory has evolved into one of the world's largest scientific research centers serving national security, energy, health and environmental research needs.

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear test lit up the sky over the desert in Alamagordo in southern New Mexico. The culmination of research by scientists of the Manhattan Project, called the "Trinity Test," was deemed a spectacular success. Three weeks later, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, were destroyed by the first atomic bombs used in warfare marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

"Nobody knew if this was going to work, but they could not afford not to succeed. The dangers of Hitler getting this atomic bomb were far too great," said John Rhodes, director of the Bradbury Science Museum, which is part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The laboratory, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, is a kind of fortress encompassing seventy square kilometers employing more than 14,000 people. It is still just as top secret as it was 60 years ago when even its existence was virtually denied.

Mr. Rhodes says the museum was created to provide a window into the laboratory's current research and history, something that the general public is prohibited from seeing at the Laboratory complex, itself.

"Much of what the lab does is in the open literature. However, an important fraction of what the laboratory does is highly classified," he explained. "Things like our work in nuclear weapons - we're trying to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing it. Our work in certain biological and chemical agents, our work in international intelligence, these are highly secret activities which require you to have a security clearance."

The Manhattan Project, named for a district of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers based in New York City, was located in New Mexico for variety of reasons: number one, its remoteness - because of its distance from the ocean, it couldn't be surveyed from the air, nor could it be bombed; two, so few people living in the region at the time was beneficial in keeping the mission secret; and the surrounding canyons of northern New Mexico allowed scientists to conduct experiments with explosives, without worrying about any of it running away. But after the successful creation of the first nuclear bomb, says museum director John Rhodes, many people wondered if the Laboratory's relevance had become obsolete.

"'You've done a good job, the war's over, thank you very much, goodbye,' the leaders said, 'Wait a minute, there's more work to be done. There's every indication that the Soviets are going to produce a nuclear weapon, their science was just as good as ours, they had a program underway during the war but it had to be derailed during the German invasion.' So the decision came to use the resources of the national laboratory to turn it to the further development of nuclear weapons, which of course, led to the Cold War and the arms race," explained Mr. Rhodes.

Today, the 14,000 employees that make up the Los Alamos Laboratory range from nuclear to earth scientists to biologists and astrophysicists. In a state that is one of the more economically depressed in the country, Bradbury Science Museum Director John Rhodes says the Laboratory feels a special responsibility to be a good neighbor, particularly to the Native American people who have lived in the region for hundreds of years.

"Los Alamos got stuck here by federal order in the middle of a Native American and Hispanic ranching and farming community, one that went back about 4,000 years. So we're newcomers," said Mr. Rhodes. "We know that we weren't part of the original migrations that formed New Mexico and we're very conscious of that and we're conscious of the need to try to make that bridge between us and some very traditional cultures."

That means helping with education. A program called "Science on Wheels" includes a van that visits schools to help improve the state of math and science in the classroom. There are also special outreach programs to encourage science for girls; and to offer job assistance. But what is it like to live in Los Alamos? Most everybody who lives here either works for, supports, or knows someone connected with the Laboratory. Most everyone agrees that the temperate climate and spectacular beauty is ideal for outdoor activities. But that may not be enough for 20-year-old James Lamborne, who was enjoying his first morning coffee in a coffee shop.

"There's a saying for it, 'You come on vacation, you leave on probation.' And that's the truth about this town," he said. "You stay here too long, you never leave. People find trouble. That was my problem - there was nothing to do, so I found trouble."

His friend James Farrell tended to agree but was slightly more upbeat: "This is a great place," he said. "If you want to raise a family here, it's a good place to live, but other than that, not much to do."

Barbara Nelson, an employee with the laboratory, couldn't talk about her job but said she is happy living in a beautiful place with important work to do.

"The work I do is classified but it's part of a national security issue and I enjoy being part of the bigger picture doing something important," she said. "I contribute quite a bit, just my small part contributes overall good for national security, good for the nation, so I enjoy being a part of that."

The Los Alamos Laboratory has not been free of controversy, however. In 1999, scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of spying for the Chinese government after he allegedly downloaded from his computer restricted material about nuclear weapons. In 2002, it was reported that more than $1 million worth of computers and phones were unaccounted for in the Los Alamos Laboratory complex. Other management and business practices have also been under investigation. John Rhodes defends his organization.

"With all due respect, very often the first stories that come out in the press aren't correct. But those are the ones everyone remembers," he said. "We have had some scandals which have involved congressional investigations and FBI investigation. But none of these has amounted to anything. What really comes through is there is a core of scientists who are really dedicated to the job they do who understand the seriousness. And where the news stories have been put out, they usually have to do with the beginning of a story where 'Los Alamos can't find something.' Well, not being able to find something is not the same as it's being lost. Not being able to put your hands on it right away is not the same as somebody from a foreign country running around with that information."

Today the laboratory that built the first nuclear bomb 60 years ago is dedicated to making sure that nuclear material does not get into the wrong hands. Los Alamos provided the training for the United Nations weapons inspectors who went to Iraq. Nearly 2,500 inspectors have trained there since the program started a few years ago.

Nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States," say leaders of the program, adding, "It is the most difficult one for a terrorist to achieve, but the one we are most concerned about because of the consequences."