These days, the once highly revered nuclear weapons lab at Los Alamos is the butt of jokes and investigations over the latest revelation--that top-secret files supposedly locked in the most secure of the lab's vaults simply vanished into thin air. Coming after a year of inflammatory headlines about the alleged theft of the "crown jewels" of nuclear weaponry by Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist who worked at the lab, the latest development has sent Congress into an investigative tizzy.
It's a good thing for Lee that he has been held in solitary confinement for most of the past year, obviously an ironclad alibi, or the government would probably be blaming him for the disappearance of the computer hard drives, which have been missing since April. Lee was the government's culprit of choice when it was trying to find out how a sketch of the top-secret W-88 nuclear warhead came into the possession of Beijing.
Forced to absolve Lee of that crime, the government hurriedly came up with the totally unrelated claim that Lee had mishandled classified material, a charge for which he faces a possible sentence of life imprisonment. Yet the accusations against Lee pale in comparison to the disclosure this week of the possible theft of the hard drives, which carry a far higher secrecy classification than the originally unclassified material Lee is said to have downloaded onto an unsecured computer.
This latest incident has sent Congress and the media into an orgy of panic over lost secrets that threaten US security, but this hysteria is unwarranted. The biggest secret to be discovered at the nuclear weapons lab is that there are no secrets. Security is lax at the labs because the labs are essentially make-work shops for scientists, who know full well that the further refinement of nuclear weapons is a pointless exercise. With the end of the cold war, they no longer have a plausible military mission.
Truth is, there haven't been any really good nuclear secrets to steal for some time, not since the Soviets exploded their first bomb half a century ago. After they, and the Chinese soon after, proved that they could play catch-up in the city-buster business, there really hasn't been much that's new. Once you can blow up a few million civilians, what else is a nuclear weapon to do?
The only legitimate work of the labs now is to make certain that the existing nuclear stockpiles throughout the world are safe, and that is information that the United States should be sharing freely with other nations that have such weapons.
That there are no secrets is hard for the weapons labs to admit to the public because it threatens their cachet, not to mention their funding. And as long as the cold war was on, the Pentagon could sustain the notion of a nuclear war-fighting scenario. Better weapons and delivery systems were needed to withstand an enemy first-strike with a survivable retaliatory power.
But that scenario is absurd in an era when our nuclear predominance is such that an effective first-strike against this nation simply is not plausible.
For decades, both sides went through a very costly charade of pretending to improve their weapons by finding some new purpose for them. Yet despite endless refinements, what one is left with is a weapon that has only one existing function: a blackmail device for terrorists. And that purpose can be accomplished just as well with one of the crude early versions of the bomb, the kind of bomb you don't need secrets to build. Plans for assembling a primitive weapon are widely available in the open literature and on the Internet. The secrets of Los Alamos deal with a sophistication in weapons design whose complexity is beyond the grasp and relevance of what a terrorist gang or nation would be up to.
The nuclear weapons labs should be shut down, for they serve no other purpose than to alarm Congress and distract it from the serious purpose of stopping the proliferation of nuclear material throughout the world. We no longer have any need for advanced nuclear weaponry, and the secrets of their design have become tokens of power useful only to excite us when some evil tribe is presumed to have stolen them.
Let's take all that money being spent on Los Alamos and the other weapons labs and spend it on buying up and destroying the huge stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear material that at this moment is passing through the sieve of the Russian border into the black market. That's the stuff that someday soon may be assembled as crude bombs and smuggled, with devastating consequences, into our own country.