How 9/11 impacted the mission of national security laboratories

It takes a weapons lab to find a weapons lab – whether that lab is in a state-of-the-art facility inside our adversary’s border, or in a shed tucked into a mountainside

September 16, 2021

Op Ed Homeland Security
At Los Alamos’s Trident facility, scientists use an ultra-high intensity laser beam in 2015 to produce high-intensity short-duration neutron bursts. Applications of this novel neutron source include improving upon current technologies for the detection of clandestine nuclear materials and treaty verification

Before the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the United States was a decade into the end of the Cold War. Nuclear testing had ceased. Terrorist attacks were largely something that happened in other countries. While threats still existed, many Americans felt confident in their safety.

Then, everything changed.

National security has always meant turning on a dime to address the threats of the moment. For those of us who work in the national security enterprise, we’re no strangers to quickly adapting our thinking and resources to confront what’s in front of us.

In 2001, Los Alamos National Laboratory was several years into the stockpile stewardship program – developing physics and computational tools to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons in the absence of testing. We weren’t sure what the future held. While we knew that nuclear weapons were still an important part of the nation’s military and diplomatic strategy, the end of the Cold War meant that the role they would play in national defense policy was unclear.

After September 11, the reality that not only did threats still exist but they could easily land on our shores hit hard. Soon after, a renewed sense of urgency emerged around the need to secure our nuclear weapons and ensure their readiness at a moment’s notice. On the top of many minds at Los Alamos were the what-if questions, specifically: What if the terrorists had used an improvised nuclear device? What if they might still? Could they potentially get a hold of a nation-state’s weapon of mass destruction? What about the potential for bio-attacks?

Read the rest of the story as it appeared in Homeland Security Today.