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Work Atmosphere

Quotes from: Rosenthal, Debra. At the Heart of the Bomb: The Dangerous Allure of Weapons Work (Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990)

What am I doing here?

"Those lucky enough to work in redecorated buildings [at Sandia National Laboratory] can conjure the gray and green metallic feel of the place just by walking outside. A young scientist working on a nuclear waste disposal project, one of the unlucky ones stuck in a squared-off version of a Quonset hut, was envious of the upholstered chairs in a study lounge at the University of New Mexico where he'd come to tell me about his work. Why couldn't Sandia workers have matching chairs and carpeting in their offices? He wondered.

" 'There are days I walk into that gate and say, "I've just got to get out of this place or I'm gonna go nuts." The problem can be summed up in one word-ambience. It's just crazy to go to work in a place with barbed wire, guards, electrified fences, machine-gun nests. I find it really oppressive. And the physical plant reinforces that completely. It's grim. There's not a blade of grass, not a living cell, anywhere in the place.' He hesitated before continuing. 'I think there's also a psychological ambience. Although I don't confront weapons stuff on a day-to-day basis, every so often a forklift will go by with a missile or something on it and you'll go, "Oh my God, what am I doing here?"'" (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, p. 19)

I've been depressed for weeks

"A young engineer at Sandia was talking about his work. 'I've been depressed for weeks on end,' he said between jokes. He does not work on bombs.

"At first he was assigned to a Sandia group devoted to nuclear safeguards, working on a project intended to prevent sabotage of nuclear power plants. Finding the work lacked challenges, he transferred to another group, this one responsible for predicting the consequences of nuclear reactor accidents. 'I did consequence analysis-also known, if you want to be a jerk about it, as "ex-plant analysis," which is modeling the atmospheric transport of crap, to use a nontechnical term, from a nuclear reactor.' That project seemed dumb, too, since no one had applied for a nuclear reactor license for years. He looked around the lab for more interesting and relevant work.

"This restlessness is common at both Sandia and Los Alamos. Karl's burned-out weapons designers in Los Alamos Lab's X division rarely leave the lab when they leave his group. If they can't stand the pressure they transfer to another division, using the internal help-wanted ads that both labs list for their employees.

"The young man continued. 'I applied for a transfer about six months ago. It was actually a really dream job in some aspects, and the guy offered me the job.' He hesitated. He had concluded that his research in that organization would be applied to bombs. He refused the job. The disappointed supervisor agreed to forget he had ever seen the young man's application.

"Why did he turn down a dream job? 'I didn't like the atmosphere,' he explained. 'It's a bomb factory.' In the new position he would have had to work with bombheads. And bombheads are notorious. They get all caught up in what they falsely imagine to be fascinating details of bomb design. They identify with the bomb. They like it. They reinforce each other in their devotion to the bomb. For him, turning down a bomb job was a moral accomplishment. Saying no momentarily relieved what he thought was 'existential ennui.'" (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 55-56)

As exciting as designing a new toothbrush

"Weapons designers contend their work is fascinating, but laboratory professionals more distanced from the design work repeat the charges incessantly: design work is dull, sterile, and scientifically insignificant. John Manley always figured it to be about as exciting as designing a new toothbrush, more a matter of engineering refinements than a scientific challenge. Once you understood the basic configurations for atomic and thermonuclear bombs, where was the challenge in minor tinkering? The development of all these new designs for toothbrushes, Manley admitted, is cause for chagrin, but not retreat. He still thinks modern weapons design is a waste of scientific talent.

"The conventional wisdom outside the weapons groups at Los Alamos and Sandia sneers at Karls' love for his projects and contradicts the official rhetoric of the laboratories, in which basic scientific research is important but never more than a close second to their weapons design work. One might imagine this would automatically confer higher status on the designers in the weapons groups at the labs. Not true. At both laboratories, but especially in Los Alamos, their coworkers show no sign of envy. The stack of applications on Karl's desk represents a small fraction of Los Alamos scientists.

"Thus the nuclear weapons club, with its own culture, is relatively small. What are the values of that culture? Designers must be good at the details and find them engrossing. That is a requirement for membership in the club. Once admitted, a scientist must understand and respect the cardinal rule of bomb designers: Don't Slip a Shot. That means do not get so far behind on your work that a planned demonstration at the Nevada Test Site might be delayed. Stick to the schedule. This is the pressure that sends designers rummaging through the laboratory's postings in search of a new position. Weapons design work is hard because the engineering details are complex, but it is stressful because the bureaucratic deadlines are unrelenting. Modern designers voluntarily impost on themselves an artificial sense of urgency that parrots the response of the original Manhattan Project scientists to the horrors of war.

"And beyond the imperative 'Don't Slip a Shot'? What else defines the weapons design culture? Behind the common commitment to meeting deadlines lies nothing of substance. The weapons design club holds no meetings, keeps no minutes. Every weapons designer I asked emphasized the importance of their culture but could think of nothing to define it besides the emphasis on punctuality and responsible work habits. Just as a business corporation is a legal fiction pretending to be as real as a person, the weapons design culture is a moral fiction imagining itself to be a real culture. Weapons designers' bragging about their 'club' seemed simply an attempt to deflect outsiders' attacks on their 'dull' work, their misunderstood love." (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 57-58)

Your funding is always in jeopardy

"One day four hundred Los Alamos researchers, including Jerry [a young physicist], were called into a meeting and told that their research funding had 'gone away.' 'They called us in on a Tuesday morning,' he remembered, 'and said, "Well, what are you planning on doing next week?"' Everyone scrambled for the internal job postings. That was when Jerry decided to get out.

" 'See, at these national labs, when the group is not in the mainstream, when you're not "intimately connected with the mission of the laboratory"-that's a phrase they bandied about a lot and nobody was ever really sure of what it meant-your funding is always in jeopardy,' he explained. He called an old college buddy at Sandia. They found a place for him right away. He'd only been in Albuquerque for four months, but already he felt better about Sandia than he'd ever felt about Los Alamos.

"Jerry had a hard time specifying how much of his Sandia research on radiation-hardened microchips was weapons-related.

" 'They're used in weapons, they're used in communications, particularly communications satellites-ant that's about all that I know,' Jerry said. At Los Alamos, he thought, there was a clearer distinction between weapons programs and basic research, so he could easily identify the purpose of his projects. Sandia was more frankly an ordinance engineering laboratory, and it seemed everything was eventually hooked to that single mission. It made him feel more secure.

"…At Los Alamos, where basic research has always had a place, Jerry had been plagued with moral qualms.

" 'It bothered me a lot more at Los Alamos than it does here,' he said. 'There I was always consciously trying to relate what I was doing to weapons in order to get money to do it. I think that in order to get money to do research you basically have to prostitute yourself.' At Sandia, the managers do that bit of dirty work for him, and he can focus on his research.

" 'I certainly do have moral reservations about it,' Jerry said. 'I don't know if I could really work in a design group, that designs weapons, where you're trying to maximize yield or whatever the hell it is you're trying to maximize. It, to me, seems just a little too close to pulling the trigger. Intellectually, I don't think there is a difference. But somehow morally there is a difference.' He looked at his dripping [ice cream] cone. 'I find it very hard, with these kinds of things, to separate morality from enlightened self-interest.'" (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 77-78)

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