Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos
This is the birthplace of the Top Secret Government. In the fall of 1942, the Los Alamos Ranch School (a boarding school for boys) was seized by the Army and converted into the headquarters of the Manhattan Project. It was here that the founding principles of the Top Secret Government such as public deception in the name of national security, conducting activities in isolated areas, compartmental/zation of information, withholding information from Congress and other branches of the constitutional government, surveillance and electronic eavesdropping without warrants, etc. were developed and put into practice. But Los Alamos is not just a piece of history. It remains a major research center in its original area of atomic physics and has branched into other areas such as chemistry, life sciences, industrial technology, supercomputing, and what Los Alamos calls “international security and threat reduction.” And almost all of the research conducted here is highly classified.
Los Alamos National Laboratory covers over 27,800 acres, employs approximately 9,600 persons, and conducts research into more than 50 technical areas. Like California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (see entry in the CALIFORNIA section), Los Alamos is operated by the University of California under contract to the Department of Energy (DOE). Los Alamos is located in north-central New Mexico northwest of Santa Fe. Surprisingly, a few of the original buildings from the Manhattan Project are still in use.
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Among the known programs at Los Alamos is the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which assesses the efficiency and safety of America’s nuclear weapons in the absence of actual nuclear testing. It does so through research into such methods as x-ray analysis of weapons and measuring the minute leakage of radioactivity from such weapons. Closely allied to this effort is the Threat Reduction Directorate, which develops ways to detect hidden nuclear weapons and neutralize them and also track movement of fissionable materials around the world. (It was this directorate that was involved in the 1999 Wen Ho Lee espionage case; see the entry for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team in the NEVADA section.) This directorate recently expanded the scope of its activities to include threats from chemical and biological weapons.
The Strategic and Supporting Research Directorate conducts the bulk of the activities at Los Alamos. In its 2000 annual report, Los Alamos described the mission of this directorate as “scientific foundations for stockpile stewardship; to use neutrons, protons, and accelerators for scientific and national security purposes; to advance and apply high performance computing in Department of Energy missions; and to enhance the knowledge base and technologies for threat reduction, emphasizing bioagents.”
A Strategic Computing Complex became operational in late 2001 and is believed to have the world’s fastest supercomputers.
Key Facilities: The Main Technical Area, known as TA-3, is where 50% of Los Alamos’ office and laboratory space is located and where most of its employees work. The facilities here include a Van de Graaff accelerator, laboratories for chemistry, physics, earth sciences, and material sciences, technical workshops for fabricating needed new items and equipment, a cryogenics laboratories, all computing facilities, and the offices of administrative personnel, including the Director.
The Plutonium Facility (TA-55) is where most nuclear activities and research are carried out. According to the official Los Alamos description, this is where “the complex chemistry associated with plutonium and other actinides in various physical states is examined using research and development in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry, engineering, and solid state physics.” So what goes on inside this building? That’s classified. What we do know is that this is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the world, since it contains the largest supply of weapons-grade plutonium in the United States. In addition to elaborate electronic and physical security systems, it is reinforced to resist explosions and other physical assaults and its special security force is heavily armed and trained to repel terrorist attacks.
Near TA-55 is the Pajarito Site (TA-18). Research into the fundamental nature of nuclear reactions is conducted here. All experiments are conducted via remote control using robotic arms and viewed over closed-circuit television.
According to the official Los Alamos description, the biological and environmental research conducted at the Health Research Lab (TA-43) “provides information to analyze long-term health and environmental effects associated with energy and defense technologies.” It is known that this is a center for human genome research.
The S Site is used for, again according to its official description, “environmental testing of nuclear weapons systems.” It is also home of a new Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility; tritium is one of the key elements found in hydrogen bombs.
Secret Stuff: Although the exact quantity kept at Los Alamos is a closely-guarded secret, supplies of plutonium-239 and uranium-235 two highly fissionable isotopes used in the fabrication of atomic bombs are stored here in large amounts. Plutonium-239 is also one of the most toxic substances known. It is normally stored in powder form and could be easily scattered by moving air, such as by being dumped into the ventilation system of a building.
Getting a Look Inside: The Bradbury Science Museum is the only building at Los Alamos open to the general public. Its numerous exhibits, including several interactive ones, cover the laboratory’s history and current areas of research. Admission is free and the museum is open daily except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.
While the other buildings at Los Alamos are not open to the public, it is possible to drive by many of them. Both the TA-55, the Plutonium Facility, and the Pajarito Site (TA-18) are located along Pajarito Road. The S Site is located on Highway 501 (known locally as West Jemez Road). TA-3, the Main Technical Area, is located near the intersection of Highway 501 and Pajarito Road.
Unusual Fact: On October 13, 2004, Roy Michael Moore was discovered living in a cave inside Los Alamos National Laboratory; the cave was down in a canyon less than 50 yards from the Los Alamos security office. Moore had apparently been living in the cave for several years; he had installed a glass front door, a wood-burning stove, a bed, solar panels for electricity, and a satellite radio system. He was also raising ten marijuana plants and had about 21 ounces of weed on hand. He was discovered when smoke from his stove attracted the attention of the laboratory’s fire department.
“I don’t know if anyone has tried squatting on DOE property before or not,” said Bernie Pleau, a laboratory spokesman. “Pretty strange, don’t you think?”
Yeah, Bernie, we think.
Getting There: East Gate, the main entrance to the laboratory, is located on Highway 502. Until 1957, Los Alamos was a closed city and only residents and approved visitors with a pass could enter through this gate. The Bradbury Science Museum is located at the intersection of Central Avenue and Thirteenth Street.