Why doesn't Los Alamos belong to the U.S. Department of Defense?

Decisions made at the dawn of the atomic age help ensure that nuclear weapons remain under civilian control.

By Jake Bartman | April 2, 2024

Nss   Why Doesnt    Feature Alt
On August 1, 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, creating the Atomic Energy Commission.

Los Alamos National Laboratory was founded as a part of the Manhattan Project, the World War II–era endeavor to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. Today, as one of two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories tasked with designing nuclear weapons—Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the other—much of Los Alamos’ work involves ensuring that the nation’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, reliable, and effective.

Given the Laboratory’s nuclear weapons work, one might wonder: Why is Los Alamos administered by DOE rather than the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)?

“The primary reason is to ensure civilian control and authority over the research, development, and production of nuclear weapons,” explains Sean Mcdonald. Mcdonald has a unique perspective on Laboratory’s role in the national security enterprise. Having worked over the course of decades at Los Alamos, Mcdonald has received assignments to DOD, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the House Armed Services Committee. He recently accepted another position at NNSA.

Civilian control of the military is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, while the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But Mcdonald notes that in the months following World War II—which ended after the United States detonated two Los Alamos-designed nuclear weapons over Japan—U.S. scientists, military leaders, and elected officials debated who would have authority over these powerful new weapons.

During World War II, the U.S. departments of War and the Navy (predecessors to today’s DOD) oversaw—on the president’s behalf—the development and use of conventional and nuclear weapons alike. However, after the war’s end, scientists and civilian leaders argued that nuclear weapons’ tremendous destructive power made them different in kind from conventional weapons, and that the weapons should fall more directly under civilian control.

“The fear was that nuclear weapons might be used as just another tool, which could lead to incredibly destructive wars,” Mcdonald says.

Nss   Why Doesnt    Dod

To confirm the president’s status as the one person authorized to direct the development and use of nuclear weapons, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act in 1946. Central to the Atomic Energy Act was the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Composed of five presidentially appointed civilian commissioners, the AEC was tasked, among other things, with ensuring the “continued conduct of research and development activities” related to the United States’ nascent nuclear enterprise. A separate committee, the Military Liaison Committee, was created to ensure that the War and Navy departments had a say in AEC deliberations.

Upon its creation, AEC assumed custody of the nuclear weapons and material produced during the Manhattan Project. The United States’ nuclear stockpile remained under AEC’s purview until the agency was disbanded in 1974, and, in 1977, AEC’s functions became part of the newly created DOE. Then, in 2000, Congress created NNSA—a semi-autonomous agency within DOE—to manage the United States’ nuclear weapons enterprise.

Throughout these administrative transitions, civilians have remained responsible for designing, developing, and maintaining the United States’ nuclear stockpile. For the past two decades, policymakers have decided that responsibilitymeans ensuring NNSA remains part of DOE, rather than DOD.

“Over the decades, there have been debates about whether NNSA should be part of DOD,” Mcdonald says. “But those debates have always been decided in favor of having nuclear weapon design, development, and production remain part of a separate agency.”

Although NNSA isn’t part of DOD, the two entities collaborate as a matter of course. For one thing, DOD develops, deploys, and operates the delivery systems—the aircraft and missiles—that make nuclear weapons an effective deterrent. Los Alamos works closely with DOD to ensure that weapons designed at the Laboratory meet DOD specifications.

Nss   Why Doesnt    Doe

Moreover, DOD is responsible for setting the nation’s high-level nuclear policy, which is based on each presidential administration’s nuclear posture review. DOD policy is also informed by the capabilities of NNSA facilities like Los Alamos, whose leaders provide technical input on policy objectives.

Doe Graphic 05

The relationship between DOD and NNSA is complicated by the fact that NNSA has its own budget. That means that while DOD can request research and development programs from NNSA, DOD doesn’t necessarily pay for the programs that NNSA administers, which leads to a certain amount of wrangling between the two organizations. The Nuclear Weapons Council, which Congress created in 1987, serves as an arbiter between DOD and NNSA, helping to translate the former’s policy into the latter’s programs.

Of course, none of the negotiations between NNSA and DOD happen in a vacuum. World events continually shape the United States’ nuclear posture in a way that flows from high-level policymaking down to the national laboratories’ day-to-day work. But while the specifics of Los Alamos’ work might change, the Laboratory’s larger goal remains the same: to ensure that the nation’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, reliable, and effective.

“Without Los Alamos’ weapons, there is essentially no nuclear deterrent,” Mcdonald says. “We’re a vital part of the deterrent from the ground up.” ★