'New ideas' laboratory born out of the cold war

For more than half a century, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has applied cutting-edge science and technology to enhance national security.

The Laboratory was established at the height of the Cold War to meet urgent national security needs by advancing nuclear weapons science and technology. Renowned physicists E.O. Lawrence and Edward Teller argued for the creation of a second laboratory to augment the efforts of the laboratory at Los Alamos. Activities began at Livermore under the aegis of the University of California with a commitment by its first director, Herbert York, to be a “new ideas” laboratory and follow multidisciplinary, team-science approach to research that Lawrence had pioneered on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.


Livermore made its first major breakthrough with the design of a thermonuclear warhead for missiles that could be launched from highly survivable submarines. For decades, the Laboratory led in the development of high-yield warheads compact enough that several could be carried on each ballistic missile.

Livermore aggressively pursued advances in computer simulations to support nuclear weapons and other research activities, including fusion energy. After acquiring one of the first UNIVAC computers, the Laboratory subsequently drove industry’s development of increasingly powerful machines as a first user of the faster computers that followed.


In addition to meeting the nation’s nuclear deterrent requirements, Laboratory scientists explored the peaceful use of nuclear explosives and made significant advances in magnetic fusion research. Concerns about fallout and the effects of ionizing radiation on human health led to the establishment of a bioscience program and strong research efforts in atmospheric sciences that would lead later successes in genomic sequencing and sensors for biosecurity as well as capabilities for modeling atmospheric releases and global climate change.

Livermore also established a formal working relationship with the Intelligence Community (IC) to analyze Soviet nuclear test activities and develop technologies. That effort has continued to grow together with the IC’s need for all-source analyses of the nuclear programs in an expanding list of countries of concern.


The decade began with Livermore’s most ambitious nuclear test, the design of a high-yield warhead for ballistic missile defense, and keen interest arose in a new technology, the laser, as means for achieving fusion in a laboratory setting. The Laboratory’s Laser program has continued to flourish and interest has remained high in ballistic missile defense. Scientists designed new weapons to enhance deterrence of Soviet aggression in Europe and they developed new explosives to improve the safety of nuclear weapons.

The energy crisis in the 1970s invigorated energy research programs, which continue as part of the government-industry partnership to develop long-term reliable, affordable, clean sources of energy. Notably, Livermore scientists conducted important studies on the effects of human activities on Earth’s ozone layer and at the end of the decade, responded to the Three Mile Island reactor accident with a newly developed Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability (NARAC).


To help win the Cold War, Livermore developed a new strategic bomb and a new ballistic missile warhead for the Air Force. One computer simulation tool that supported this work, DYNA3D, was transferred to industry and has been widely used to crash test vehicles. In support of the Strategic Defense Initiative, LLNL scientists and engineers created the first X-ray lasers and developed small-satellite technologies that were deployed on the Clementine mission in 1994 to map the Moon. Laser science and engineering in support of national security and fusion energy applications advanced with the development and operation of the 10-beam Nova laser system.

In 1987, Livermore bioscience researchers spearheaded DOE’s launch of an initiative that would determine the entire sequence of DNA that makes up the human genome. LLNL had developed key chromosome-sorting capabilities to make genome sequencing possible, and DOE’s effort evolved into the world-wide Human Genome Initiative.


The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and LLNL helped DOE define the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which is ensuring the safety, security, and performance of the nation’s nuclear deterrent in the absence of nuclear testing. Livermore provided leadership in achieving a million-fold improvement computing capability over a decade and began construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) to perform physics experiments at weapon-like temperatures and pressures. LLNL also pursued the development of analytical and detection capabilities to address the threat posed by the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists or nation states.

New world-class capabilities established at Livermore included the High Explosives Applications Facility (HEAF), the Forensics Science Center, the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (CAMS), and the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI).


The Laboratory successfully completed a life-extension program for the nation’s most modern ICBM warhead that will enable it to remain in the U.S. strategic arsenal well into the 21st century. Studies conducted at Livermore and Los Alamos concluded that the plutonium in weapons is aging gracefully. A new facility was constructed that is housing successive generations of ever more powerful supercomputers, and NIF was dedicated in 2009.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, LLNL programs in counterterrorism and counterproliferation gained impetus. Innovative new technologies were developed for biodetection, chemical and explosives detection, and nuclear materials detection. Partnering with other research institutions, Livermore’s contributions to basic science ranged from new elements added to the periodic table (including 116 Livermorium) to the discovery of the first extrasolar planet.


Detailed experiments and continuing advances toward exaflop-scale computing are enabling the development of more predictive simulation models for stockpile stewardship. NIF is proving to be a remarkably flexible and valuable tool for creating conditions that exist in giant planets, providing data needed for stockpile stewardship, and progressing toward fusion ignition.

Innovations, based on advances in material science, range from plastic scintillators for radiation detection to biocompatible materials and microelectronics for myriad healthcare applications. LLNL researchers’ advances in additive manufacturing are creating materials with previously unimaginable properties and are providing a path toward more cost effective production processes within the nuclear weapons complex, and more broadly, U.S. industry.