Readers of this blog might get the mistaken idea that most of my journalistic attention is focused on climate, but for the last 17 years nuclear weapons have been my primary professional preoccupation. In that regard, it has been a remarkable week.
Sunday night, Congress approved a spending bill that ended months of uncertainty surrounding the possibility for deep budget cuts in the U.S. nuclear weapons program. For those not familiar with New Mexico’s political and economic geography, we are home to two nuclear weapons labs, and some 10,000 New Mexicans are directly employed in nuclear weapons work:
The main message of that first-day story was parochial – budget and jobs. A story has to be about one thing. But one of the most important decisions – small in dollar terms but large in international implications – was the cancellation of the “reliable replacement warhead”, which would have been the first new U.S. nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War. So after burying that theme on day one, I tried to make clear what it meant on day two:
The most dramatic bit happened on day three, as the National Nuclear Security Administration rolled out its plans for a new U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex for the 21st century. The marquee bit was the designation of Los Alamos, here in New Mexico, as the future home of plutonium manufacturing for U.S. nuclear weapons.
This decision is quite literally the culmination for me of 17 years of reporting I have done on this subject. Back in the early 1990s, it was widely argued that Los Alamos would eventually get the plutonium mission, which is central to manufacturing nuclear weapons. I tried to sketch out the background here:
- “Los Alamos Ready, Not Willing to Build N-Bombs” (note that the quote is a headline from a 1992 story – Los Alamos is today apparently very willing)
Your reporting on this issue has been first-rate for 17 years. Well done.
Long ago, I was heading for a career in nuclear / high-energy /fusion physics before discovering computing, and I’ve helped sell supercomputers to Los Alamos folks and others who used them for simulating bombs (as opposed to testing them live), modeling groundwater contamination.
Since you’re there: is there any plausible chance that NM can soon move more of its excellent technical people from nuclear-bomb efforts towards more productive tasks, or does this simply await the retirements of lots of people?
How does Bill Richardson relate to this overall topic?
I and a few others are actively trying to move technical people from bombs to other tasks. The simplest short term fix requires seed money. The seed money could come from angels, VCs, industry, academia, or government.
There are projects (for instance green energy and smart sensors) and people in the state. Getting the projects off the ground in competitive fashion and keeping them in New Mexico long enough to become stable (in finances and personnel) is tricky.
With seed money, lots of really good things happen soon.
Without it, talent disperses quickly.
Unfortunately, many of the best computer science folks have left the state in the last two years.
Richardson has been a bit of a mystery with respect to this issue. With his presidential candidate hat on, he’s called for deep cuts in the nuclear weapons program. With his governor’s hat on, he’s said things that look frankly contradictory. My colleague Jeff Jones and I did a story back in September examining his stance(s):
Eric & John – thanks, useful.
Eric: which (if any) VCs do you work with? How about Intel Capital, since they have a major site in Albuquerque?
I sympathize with the difficulties – not everywhere is Silicon Valley. The US needs to grow additional, viable technology clusters in many more places. In my experience, the lack of experienced risk capital is the biggest impediment, unfortunately.
I know quite a few VCs across the country but currently, on these projects, we have not put them in front of VCs yet. As soon as I rewrite the business plans a bit, mostly GANTT charts, I may go to VCs.
The lack of experienced risk capital is annoying. From the point of view of the VCs, the deal flow has not been high enough to support VCs.
From the point of view of technical talent and forming viable companies, the game is a bit harder. I can discuss this offline (email@example.com or 505-662-3115). The discussion is longer than fits in a blog, even John’s.