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Q&A: Lawrence Livermore director Kimberly Budil on the evolving nuclear weapons enterprise

13 May 2021

The physicist and Livermore veteran, the first woman to lead the famed facility, addresses the challenges facing the lab’s inertial confinement fusion and warhead modernization programs.

Named as the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in March, Kimberly Budil now leads a workforce of approximately 7400 employees and manages an annual operating budget of about $2.7 billion. She is the first woman to lead the California facility and the second to head a US nuclear weapons laboratory. (The first was Jill Hruby, who led Sandia National Laboratories from 2015 to 2017 and has been nominated by President Biden as administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.)

Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Budil previously served as Livermore’s principal associate director for weapons and complex integration. She came to the lab in 1987 as a graduate student in laser programs, and she has worked in the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), global security, and physical and life sciences programs. She has been detailed twice to DOE and was vice president for national laboratories at the University of California, which comanages Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. She holds a PhD in engineering and applied science from the University of California, Davis, and a bachelor’s in physics from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Physics Today spoke with Budil last month.

PT: Do you consider your appointment an important milestone for women working in the nuclear weapons complex?

Budil: The facts are that I am the 13th director of Livermore and the second woman to head a nuclear weapons lab. Both are significant. It would be nice to live in a world where it isn’t, but it is. I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful support and feedback from women and others across our lab and beyond who feel that it’s a significant moment.

I’m also an experimental physicist, and Livermore has a long legacy of theorists in leadership roles. That’s also significant. It speaks to the kind of research we’re doing and the impact that experimental science has had on our lab and our national security missions.

PT: Given that your missions are defined mostly by the requirements of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the nuclear weapons program, to what extent can the director influence the direction of the lab’s programs?

Budil: Every lab director hopes that they can influence the shape and direction of their institution. There is plenty of opportunity on that front across all our missions. About two-thirds of our budget represents the nuclear weapons mission, and about three-quarters comes from NNSA. That shapes who we are and what we do, the kinds of capabilities we have, the disciplines of science and engineering that we are particularly strong in, and the major facilities we have.

We have twin pillars at Livermore. One is high-performance computing. We’ve been a leader there for many decades. The very first thing the lab bought on its founding in 1952 was a supercomputer. The second pillar is high-density science, represented by NIF. Today we have a third, emerging pillar in additive and advanced manufacturing.

The core missions today are deploying the tools of stockpile stewardship to modernize it and prepare for an uncertain future, and updating the weapons enterprise. We have two major warhead modernization programs: the W80-4 life extension program and the W87-1 modification program. Both are opportunities for us to think about smart material and design choices. They will allow us to introduce technologies and enable the whole system to be more sustainable, agile, and cost-effective in the long term.

PT: You have other missions apart from the stockpile.

Budil: Our broader nuclear security mission includes nonproliferation, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, the assessment of foreign nuclear weapons programs, and understanding nuclear technologies more broadly worldwide.

The lab has a long history in fundamental science and other areas, including energy and climate change. The first global circulation models were developed here and came out of the technologies developed to model nuclear weapons. We’re developing technologies to better understand the impacts of extreme weather events driven by climate change along with strategies to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.

We have a lot of expertise in carbon capture and storage and decarbonization technologies.

For more than a decade, we’ve been working with clinical researchers and partners in the pharmaceutical industry to develop in silico pipelines for drug development and testing (see Physics Today, January 2018, page 27). After the past year, it’s very clear that it’s an important path to pursue. The speed with which we can deploy countermeasures or vaccines needs to improve.

PT: You mentioned advanced manufacturing as an emerging pillar. Would transferring that technology to industry be part of that endeavor?

Budil: Absolutely. We developed a range of new approaches to additive manufacturing across a huge range of materials, from polymers to metals and anything in between, including explosives. We’re also working in close partnership with industry to spin out technologies. We’ve created an advanced manufacturing lab on campus where our scientists and engineers work under cooperative research and development agreements with industry partners to mature their technologies and prepare them for market.

PT: You have experience in both lab and DOE management. The relationship between the two has occasionally been tense over the years. Commissions have noted micromanagement by NNSA and a culture of transactional relationships as two of the factors that have damaged trust between the two sides. How would you assess the NNSA–lab relationship today?

Budil: Things have improved. The federal team is under enormous pressure because past [warhead] programs have had serious issues. That breeds a natural risk aversion and a desire to control uncertainties and potential failure modes in the system. We’ve gone from doing one life-extension program at a time to doing five, and the demands on the system are incredible. It still takes us 10 years to do a life extension on warheads that have been in the stockpile for many decades and that took less than five years to build.

We know more, we have better tools and technologies, and manufacturing has progressed since the 1980s. Something in the system is holding us back, and we need to grapple with it today. We are working with our federal partners to rethink the amount of process in the system and how we think about risk. You can’t eliminate risk, so how are we going to manage it to get the system moving and achieve some efficiency gains? Time is money. If it takes 10 years to do one of those programs, it’s enormously more expensive than if we could do it on a much shorter time scale.

PT: NNSA is overdue on completing a major assessment of its inertial confinement fusion program. Do you think that will result in any major changes at NIF?

Budil: Ignition is one of the last scientific challenges of stockpile stewardship that we have yet to solve. A future NNSA enterprise will need to have a high-yield [fusion] facility. It’s a key component of sustaining the stockpile without returning to nuclear testing. We’ve made great technical progress. We capped 2020 with a series of record-breaking shots, getting to yields of 160–170 kilojoules with different designs of hohlraums and capsules.

There won’t be another US facility on NIF’s scale in the next decade. The laser is 10 years old. It needs to be tuned up. It was built on 1980s technology. We can now tell the laser isn’t precise enough, and we know how to fix it. We’ve laid out a series of requests for investments and maintenance and recapitalization of NIF that will give us the best shot at those next steps.

PT: What sort of upgrades to NIF are you seeking?

Budil: We’re not going to change the architecture of the main laser. You might imagine a future facility would be a diode-based system. [NIF is flashlamp-pumped.] We have new technologies that could make it more stable and more repeatable. One of the challenges we have is that the energy delivery isn’t uniform enough. The fuel capsules are now so precise that we can see the nonuniformities in the laser. The laser needs to iterate the precision with which we can engineer the targets.

PT: And NNSA is considering your request?

Budil: I think NNSA is receptive to trying to improve performance of the laser within existing parameters. Given that NIF has operated flawlessly for a decade, it’s not an unreasonable time to do a little bit of facility recapitalization.

PT: Do you think NIF will achieve ignition? And if it never does, will it still have been worth building and operating?

Budil: We hope to achieve ignition. I’m not promising it. We have made enormous progress over the last decade and have legitimate pathways that can get us to ignition. Are we going to have a high-yield platform at NIF? No. It will always be a very marginal ignition machine. If it had been built a factor of two or three bigger, that would have been great, but we couldn’t at the time.

We use the pursuit of ignition to train, test, and challenge our design community. It is the most complicated problem we have. Designing those implosions is enormously complex and tests all the physics important for our design community. That is where they get to practice the art of design, and we get to see if they ask the right questions: Do they challenge themselves in the right way? Do the results bear out their physics intuition?

We have made changes in our approach to the stockpile, based on the data we’ve taken at NIF, that have saved enormous amounts of money and made our stockpile enormously more resilient. For that alone, it has been worth it. The quality and fidelity of the data and the range of things we’ve been able to measure are far beyond anything we anticipated.

PT: Do you expect the Biden administration to introduce changes to the weapons program in its upcoming nuclear posture review?

Budil: I expect there will be some changes. The differences between the Obama and Trump postures were relatively modest. Trump added a few things to Obama’s posture, and some of those could potentially get taken off the table. I hope we keep the weapons modernization programs that are underway, because I believe they are the vehicles for making the enterprise better and more cost-effective. They also help us learn how to make smart, risk-informed decisions in the future. There is no substitute for doing the work.

PT: There’s been some congressional opposition to the W87-1, the proposed replacement warhead for the ground-based missile force (see Physics Today, April 2020, page 26). How significant to Livermore’s future would dropping that program be?

Budil: It would be a big deal. It is a big program, and it’s relatively early in life. W87-1 is the first fully modernized warhead of the stewardship era, and it’s the first one slated to be newly manufactured. W87-1 is safer, more manufacturable, and more cost-effective over its lifetime. It is the first customer for [plutonium] pit production at Los Alamos (see “US continues push to restart plutonium pit production,” Physics Today Online, 5 March 2021). It is using elements of the production enterprise that haven’t been operable for a decade or more. Leaving the enterprise fallow for several decades has made it enormously challenging to get things up and running.

In partnership with the Kansas City Plant, where the nonnuclear components of the weapons are made, we built a small production facility to develop additive manufacturing processes for polymeric parts. Today it takes five to six years to develop a new part from concept to production. We hope we’ll be able to do that full cycle in less than a year.

PT: What are your beliefs about the role of nuclear weapons and the obligations of nuclear weapons states toward disarmament?

Budil: Nuclear weapons and deterrence have been the bedrock of our national security strategy since the dawn of the atomic era. Many countries did not pursue atomic weapons because of the US nuclear umbrella.

If conditions were such that you could draw down the stockpile and dismantle the whole apparatus, that would be wonderful. But it’s hard to imagine that. Once the knowledge is out, there will always be people who seek to use it to their advantage.

I believe rebuilding the US capacity for [warhead] production is a component of future arms control and potentially smaller stockpiles. If we had a more flexible, responsive, agile, and resilient nuclear weapons enterprise, we could hedge risk using our production capability rather than weapons in the field. That could be an important first step to a future with fewer nuclear weapons.

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