It was 1993. The Cold War was over. The U.S. had declared a moratorium on nuclear testing, and a new strategy of ensuring the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent would soon be needed. Victor “Vic” Reis, then the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary of Defense Programs, added the phrase “science-based” to what Congress had begun calling “stockpile stewardship.”
“’Science-based’ was code for ‘trust the labs to maintain their overriding integrity and passion that is embedded in this scientific endeavor,'” Reis said. “And trust the labs I did.”
On Nov. 3, current and former DOE Tri-Lab directors, colleagues and contemporaries of Reis gathered at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to honor him with the John S. Foster Jr. Medal, recognizing Reis for his significant contributions to national security, his innovative leadership in science and technology, and dedication to national service, particularly for guiding the nation’s nuclear program through an uncertain time of budget cuts and the end of underground testing. Reis became the third recipient of the Foster Medal, after the award’s namesake Foster and 2016 honoree Gen. Larry D. Welch.
“The mission of maintaining the strategic stability and reducing the risk of proliferation in an uncertain world, if anything, has become more complex and no less important,” Reis said. “Trusting the labs to be true to their science roots while fulfilling their national security responsibilities has got to be the better strategy. It just takes some leadership and courage -- Johnny Foster courage. Being connected through this award to Johnny Foster and Larry Welch, and all they have meant and are still doing, is a rare and much appreciated honor.”
Reis spent more than 50 years in government and private industry in the service of national security. He held leadership positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, in the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President, at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and at the U.S. Department of Defense and DOE, where he was credited as the architect of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP).
The Foster Medal ceremony featured remarks by speakers who lauded Reis as a brilliant thinker and strategist, an inspirational leader and for playing a pivotal role in navigating the uncharted territory of nuclear security in a post-Cold War world without testing.
“Like the medal’s namesake, Vic made a difference; if you work at a weapons lab today, you likely owe your position to Vic,” said Sandia National Laboratories Director Stephen Younger in a pre-recorded video message. “Simply put, Vic Reis saved the American nuclear weapons program. During a time when our nuclear deterrent hung in the balance, Vic Reis stepped up to the plate. He accomplished what most people would’ve said was impossible.”
Former Lawrence Livermore National Lab Director and physicist George Miller, also speaking via video, remarked on Reis’ effective technique of bringing employees of the weapons program and scientists together to create “the fundamental roadmap for what became stockpile stewardship.”
Bruce Tarter, LLNL director from 1994-2002, called Reis the “driving force” behind what would become the Stockpile Stewardship Program, and honored him for his “astonishing accomplishment” of bringing together collaborators in the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), a 1995 Tri-Lab coalition that resulted in several new generations of supercomputers.
“Vic had understood that in a world without nuclear testing, that essentially high-performance computing was the sine qua non of the entire (stockpile stewardship) program,” Tarter said. “What Vic understood, and why he was the single central ingredient that makes stewardship possible, was that he knew we were at a point of discontinuity. When you’re at a point of discontinuity, you don’t take baby steps, you don’t even take normal steps, you take giant steps with huge risks. Knowing which steps to take, he bet on the labs.”
Former Los Alamos National Lab Director and current Stanford University professor Siegfried “Sig” Hecker, who met Reis at DARPA, said Reis made a “seminal contribution to the country” and distinguished himself by knowing how to work with the laboratories, particularly in assembling a group of nuclear weapons program leaders from the three NNSA labs known as “The Navigators,” who collaborated on a vision for stockpile stewardship.
“He was the right person at the right place at the right time,” Hecker said. “Reis was famous for being able to pull the pieces together to make things work. We needed a strategist, and Vic was that strategist.”
Reis also was praised for his keen understanding of the ins and outs of the political process. Former Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, the incoming president of the Lawrence Livermore National Security (LLNS) Board of Governors, recalled Reis’ exceptional ability to influence lawmakers who might not have otherwise supported stockpile stewardship, or the National Ignition Facility, to back the ideas.
“Vic was one of those rare people that understands public policy, but also understands the need to have a political consensus,” Tauscher said. “We in my office used to call Vic the ‘nuclear whisperer’ because there was never a time when we couldn’t ask him a tough question…and he didn’t have a way forward.”
Nominations for the John S. Foster Jr. Medal were submitted to an independent peer review panel, which unanimously recommended Reis. Lab Director Bill Goldstein presented Reis with the medal along with Welch and Foster. The award was sponsored by Lawrence Livermore National Security. Following the medal ceremony, a reception was held for the honoree.
In addition to the Foster Medal, Reis also has received two Department of Defense Medals for Distinguished Public Service and the Department of Energy’s James Schlesinger Medal. After returning to DOE in 2005 as a senior adviser in the Office of the Secretary and Undersecretaries, Reis retired in March 2017.