Meeting Charlie McMillan, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2011-2017, gave us the rare chance to understand the lab’s modern missions. Seventy-seven years after the Manhattan Project completed its work, the Los Alamos National Laboratory remains one the nation’s premier practical and theoretical science centers.
The lab’s core mission is ensuring the safety, reliability and performance of our nuclear stockpile. Charlie compared nuclear weapons to an aging car. “What happens to the dashboard and seats? They crack, right? Why? Radiation from the sun. Similarly weapons degrade over time in these high radiation environments. Every year, we sample some of them to see what’s going on.”
The lab director then informs the President about the state of the nation’s weapons systems. “I wrote those letters seven times,” Charlie said. “Most of mine were to President Obama. My understanding is that he read them.”
“You can argue whether nuclear weapons should exist,” he said, “but as long as there are nuclear weapons, you need organizations like the lab to make sure you have responsible people taking care of these systems.” In Charlie’s experience scientists are very aware of the ethical dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons. “They are not Dr. Strangeloves,” he added.
Another key piece of the lab’s current work includes intelligence and research related to space. In addition, work on the effects of radiation on living systems has led to the creation of analytical tools that helped map the human genome. In turn, that contributed to research related to sequencing the HIV virus, leading to possible vaccines for HIV-AIDS. Those tools enabled scientists at the lab to pivot to work on Covid-19 and the early recognition that the virus was rapidly mutating.
In addition, lab scientists adapted sophisticated computer models for weapons monitoring to look at climate change. “Los Alamos is responsible for sea, ice and land models,” Charlie said. “It’s a natural.”
That’s what happens when a lot of very smart, curious and motivated people come together: they could blow up the world – or save the planet.
Check out Los Alamos: How the town that didn’t exist changed history to learn more about the Manhattan Project.