US Nuclear Research Center Aims to Modernize America’s Atomic Weapons

27 September 2023

Los Alamos in the Southwestern American state of New Mexico is where the U.S. government set up its secret mission to develop nuclear weapons during World War II.

Eighty years later, it is the home to huge government research and development laboratories.

Now, Los Alamos National Laboratory is taking part in the nation's largest nuclear weapons effort since World War II. The aim is to modernize America's nuclear weapons. New workers there are producing an important part of nuclear weapons – plutonium cores.

A sign marks a roadside rest stop that has been made to look like the historic security gate that all Manhattan Project workers passed through in Los Alamos, N.M., on June 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
A sign marks a roadside rest stop that has been made to look like the historic security gate that all Manhattan Project workers passed through in Los Alamos, N.M., on June 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The government has given jobs to about 3,300 workers in the last two years. The workforce is now over 17,270. Close to half of the workers live in some other part of New Mexico. The population of Los Alamos nearly doubles during the workweek.

While new technology has changed the way work is done at Los Alamos, some things remain the same. Secrecy and a sense of duty that came in the 1940s are still part of the community.

James Owen is an engineer. He has spent more than 25 years working in the nuclear weapons program.

"What we do is meaningful. This isn't a job, it's a vocation and there's a sense of contribution that comes with that," Owens told The Associated Press. He added, "The downside is, we can't tell people about all the cool things we do here."

While the main goal of Los Alamos is maintaining America's nuclear weapons, the research center also works in other areas. These include energy, national security, space exploration, supercomputing, efforts to limit disease, and threats from computer attacks.

Employees say their work is necessary because of worldwide political insecurity. Most people in Los Alamos are connected to the laboratories, so opposition is rare.

But groups that follow nuclear development, such as activists and nonprofit organizations, question the need for nuclear weapons and the increasing costs.

Greg Mello is director of the Los Alamos Study Group. It is an organization that has disagreed with the laboratory over safety, security and cost concerns. He said, "For some time, Los Alamosans have seemed numbed out..."

Chistopher Nolan's recently released film Oppenheimer brought new attention to the town. The attention increased support for an effort to expand the federal government's radiation compensation program for a group of people in several western states. The group includes people in southern New Mexico where the Trinity Test of the first atomic bomb took place in 1945. In July, the U.S. Senate voted to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which would pay money to people who might have been affected by nuclear-related activity in the U.S.

The activist groups argue that the federal government's modernization effort has already gone above spending predictions. Additionally, they say the effort has taken years longer than planned. Independent government researchers released a report earlier this month that showed the growing costs and delays.

Owen said officials feel a sense of urgency because of increasing threats around the world. "What's being asked is that we all need to do better in a faster amount of time," he said.

I'm Gregory Stachel.

Susan Montoya Bryan reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted the story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

core n. a part that has been removed from a material for scientific study

vocation n. a strong desire to spend your life doing a certain kind of work (such as religious work)

contribute v. to give (something, such as money, goods, or time) to help a person, group, cause, or organization

maintain – v. to keep (something) in good condition by making repairs or correcting problems

numb adj. unable to think, feel, or react normally because of something that shocks or upsets you

compensation – n. something that is done or given to make up for damage or trouble