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In the early 1950s, the U.S. needed a breakthrough to bolster its security by deterring the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union. That breakthrough took the form of a smaller, lighter atomic device that could be mounted on missiles or launched from submarines and was developed by a group led by Johnny Foster—just 27 years old at the time and a future director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Foster was known for having the ability to recognize a technical problem and the knack for making the tools to fix it. The new device’s development and Foster’s leadership helped launch the Laboratory’s success and its evolution into an innovation powerhouse.
Today, the world faces significant challenges to its security as technological advances have increased the ease with which non-nuclear states might develop nuclear weapons. Greater regional conflict increases the possibility that instabilities could lead to proliferation among neighboring hostile nations. Now more than ever, the U.S. and the international nonproliferation community need tools to identify incipient illicit nuclear weapons development efforts. We need to know about such developments long before they lead to an explosive test, the signature of a long development process.
And once again, as described in the article beginning on page four, Livermore has recognized a technical problem. Possessing the knack for making the tools to fix it, we are developing the technology to address this critical national security need. Artificial intelligence, neural networks, and deep learning—technologies that the Laboratory has unparalleled experience with—offer a possible way to mine open sources of information on the Internet to detect states and non-state actors in the early stages of developing nuclear weapons programs. Researchers in our Machine Learning Group developed a neural network trained to look for specific objects in unlabeled data such as text, images, and video. When these researchers approached nuclear proliferation analysts in our Global Security Principal Associate Directorate about the tool, the analysts realized it offered a solution to their technical problem.
One lesson this reinforces is just how deeply computing is embedded in Livermore’s DNA, in its method of solving extremely difficult problems, and in its approach to innovation. The article beginning on page 12 explores the work of a new research center led by the Laboratory that is creating high-performance computing software to aid in the development of new functional materials, which respond to stimuli such as voltages, light, or magnetic fields. We need this new class of materials in such applications as quantum computers (a technology required to counter a variety of threats), sustainable energy applications such as solar cells, and next-generation solid-state data storage technology. Again, we have recognized a national security need and are building the tools to address it.
Finally, in support of its nuclear stockpile stewardship mission, the Laboratory is challenged to assess weapon readiness as systems age and the workforce grows more removed from the last live nuclear weapons tests. Computer simulations can model weapons behavior but require accurate experimental data on the behavior of the materials inside a warhead. The article beginning on page 16 discusses Livermore’s contribution to the development of Scorpius, a 125-meter-long linear induction accelerator diagnostic tool that will generate radiographic images of contained subcritical experiments with fissionable nuclear material, specifically plutonium. Once deployed underground at the Nevada National Security Site, its multi-pulse flash x rays will offer researchers a view of the late stages of a nuclear weapon implosion, help identify the effects of aging and manufacturing on the stockpile, and inform future improvements to the stockpile.
The Laboratory is particularly well-positioned to solve these problems. We can pull together a range of experts with diverse skills into multidisciplinary teams to find solutions to the many security challenges facing the nation today—just as we did in the 1950s, when a young physicist led a group that provided the tools to meet the challenge of the Cold War.