Nuckolls honored with John S. Foster Jr. Medal

Nov. 26, 2018

Former LLNL director John Nuckolls (right) accepts the fourth John S. Foster Jr. Medal from the award’s namesake, while prior Foster Medal recipient Gen. Larry Welch looks on. Photo by Carrie Martin/LLNL (Download Image)

Nuckolls honored with John S. Foster Jr. Medal

Nolan O'Brien,, 925-422-3399

Laboratory leaders past and present filled the Bldg. 482 auditorium on Nov. 8 to pay tribute to one of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) most prolific innovators and visionary leaders, former LLNL director John Nuckolls, the 2018 recipient of the John S. Foster Jr. Medal.  

Seven laboratory directors and an Air Force general lined the front row and colleagues of Nuckolls took turns sharing stories of his innovations in thermonuclear explosive design, how he fathered the field of inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and the laser program at LLNL and his visionary leadership of the Laboratory as director in an era of tremendous geopolitical uncertainty. But it was the unassuming 87-year-old Nuckolls who stole the show when he graciously accepted the fourth annual John S. Foster Jr. Medal with an apology to the medal’s namesake.

“When I found out about this award, I thought about how I promised Foster in 1960 that we would get ignition,” said Nuckolls from the podium, his medal draped from his neck. His gaze turned to Foster, the medal’s namesake, who was LLNL director when Nuckolls was an up-and-coming designer. “My first thought was that I’m not ready for this award yet. Johnny, I’m sorry we have not gotten ignition yet. But we’re close.”

Compressing hydrogen has long been the life mission of Nuckolls. After more than six decades, he still comes in to work five days a week, driven by the scientific challenge of ICF, using lasers to compress a tiny capsule of thermonuclear fuel to such high densities that the atoms fuse. But ICF isn’t the only grand challenge Nuckolls has taken on. He first made a name for himself compressing thermonuclear fuel at a grand scale.

It was the height of the Cold War, and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev had just backed out of a short-lived nuclear test moratorium. Foster, then director of the Laboratory, had set out a vision for staff to “run so fast that anything the Soviets built would be obsolete.” Word had gotten around that Nuckolls had a number of outside-the-box ideas, and he fielded a new thermonuclear weapon design in an atmospheric nuclear test. Although his proof of principle test was an astonishing success, his max yield test fizzled. But Nuckolls wasn’t ready to give up on the design so easily. He analyzed possible failure modes, made a few tweaks and tested it one month later in the Housatonic event. It was a resounding success, and validation for a concept that would ultimately enable game-changing missle defense systems for the U.S.    

“It’s a shame that most people only know John for fathering the field of ICF,” said Goerge Miller during the Foster medal ceremony. “His weapons ideas led to the Sprint and Spartan anti-ballistic missile systems, and he wrote the first code to ensure containment of underground nuclear tests. As director, he championed improving the safety and security of the stockpile, even though it was a political football.”

In addition to Miller, the Foster Medal ceremony featured remarks by LLNL Director Bill Goldstein; Nuckolls colleagues Thomas C. Reed, Lowell Wood and Claire Max; former LLNL Director Bruce Tarter; and former LANL Director Siegfried “Sig” Hecker. Previous Foster Medal recipients Gen. Larry Welch and Foster also were on hand to present the award to Nuckolls.

Goldstein shared a story about how Nuckolls interviewed him when he was a prospective employee of the Labroatory, and how he just barely impressed Nuckolls enough to get hired as a flex-term employee. He also spoke about the excitement he saw in Nuckolls’ eyes when the ignition campaign at the National Ignition Facility surfaced new physics mysteries to be solved.

“He has always been an intellectual leader who thinks outside the box,” said Goldstein. “He never even knew there was a box. He embodies the way the Laboratory takes on problems.”  

His intellect was a common theme of the remarks, as was the reverence he commanded for asking the most difficult questions during design reviews. Miller recalled his first design review with Nuckolls, calling it an “intellectual bar fight” and a “fight for his life.”

Wood also spoke to the high standard of scientific rigor set by Nuckolls, telling a story about how Nuckolls insisted that designs be modeled in detail before an experiment and that the experimental results be compared with predicitons and differences reconciled before moving on to a new design. He also shared stories of traveling to the White House with Nuckolls to discuss the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Max spoke of Nuckolls’ innate ability to come up with innovative new ideas for seemingly intractable problems. She also shared how Nuckolls pressed for equality of pay between men and women long before it became a common practice.

Hecker spoke about how they shared jobs as laboratory directors during the time that the Soviet Union was falling apart. He also shared stories about giving annual testimony together to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and about traveling together for the first visit to Russia’s then-secret nuclear labs.

Tarter recalled the visionary leadership of Nuckolls, citing his transformation of the physics directorate at LLNL and his merger of the Laboratory’s intelligence and nonproliferation organizations, creating the predecessor of the global security organization that would become the norm across the national laboratories.

“What an extraordinary thing happened when John was named the AD of physics,” said Tarter. “He introduced a completely new element, and all of a sudden physics had license to go places it hadn’t gone before. And, as director, he was the first at any laboratory to envision the post-Cold War geopolitical structure, and he knew how to position the Laboratory to address the challenges that future would present. He also held the Laboratory together while weapon budgets were collapsing and he laid the foundation for the NIF.”

Reed’s prepared remarks, presented by his wife, Kay, described their time together as young secondary designers. He reveled in the competitive nature that existed between primary and secondary designers at LLNL in the Cold War, saying “compressing uranium was a fool’s errand,” and that the other end of the periodic tables was “where the action was.” Reed noted that Nuckolls has carried a lifelong focus on the challenge of compressing hydrogen to ever greater densities, both at a grand scale with nuclear weapon designs and at a tiny scale with ICF.

Achieving controlled fusion ignition in a laboratory may be one of the greatest scientific challenges ever attempted, and it is a challenge that has captured the imagination and focus of Nuckolls since he made that promise to Foster in 1968. His tenacity speaks to what may be his greatest hallmark: He will never give up on a grand challenge.

“Sometimes people ask me in the elevator, ‘Why are you still here? When are you leaving?’” Nuckolls said while accepting the award. “I’m going to be here until we get ignition.”


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