This was originally posted on warrenellis.com as a GUEST INFORMANT piece and grew out of thoughts/worries from Las Vegas (Part 2). I would like to thank Warren for this chance to shout into the darkness, in hopes that someone in Britain will take an interest in their secret history and try to preserve some of it like the Atomic Testing Museum is.
NB: I used to work at a nuclear weapons laboratory, but don’t anymore. I held a “Q” clearance but, as you’ll read below, those responsibilities never end.
The problem with asking about a “secret history” is that people immediately think you are a whackadoo hell bent on conspiracy theories and just hoping, pleading, and praying to be anal probed by aliens. But we do have secret history and are making more of it every day, courtesy of the way various governments classify information. My particular interest is in the history of the global nuclear weapons programs and you’re going to have to bear with me because there’s a lot of acronyms to cope with in the Land of the Classified. Here is quick primer on classification in the American system:
We have two different tiers of classification: Restricted Data (RD), AKA nuclear secrets, and everything else. The normal classification procedure involves the review of the information and then decision if it needs to be classified into the familiar Confidential, Secret (S), Top Secret (TS), etc. categories. For normal materials, it is presumed public information until someone reviews it and gives it a classification. This classified information will, in time, automatically declassify as expiration dates hit, unless someone renews their classification. For example, every soldiers’ WWII military records were classified and automatically became public in 25 years, although my grandfather’s war record has received a 25 year extension…twice.
Not so with nuclear secrets. They are “born secret” and must be reviewed to be declassified. There are no expiration dates on nuclear secrets. The two clearances that allow the use of Restricted Data are the Department of Energy’s “L’” and “Q” clearances. They may be considered as offset and slightly higher versions of Secret & Top Secret, except that they permit the access to RD. One of the problems with trying to piece together history related to nuclear secrets is that they suffer something of a contagion theory; things that normally would be completely pedestrian information, such as a phonebook, become Official Use Only (OUO) because it holds a list of names and phone numbers of people who hold L & Q clearances. State Department documents that might reference the nuclear ambitions of another nation suddenly become cross-classified with a L or Q clearance.
This also means that people who have L & Q clearances are “Informed Individuals”. With what they already know that is classified, they are capable of thinking entirely new, instantly classified thoughts and to speak them out loud in an uncleared area or to uncleared people is a felony. So, yes, it is possible to commit Thoughtcrime. In light of that, it should make sense that workers in the nuclear complex tend to work very long hours and stay long past retirement age. Inside the gate is the only place they are free to think and talk. Outside the gate they have to constantly guard themselves from accidentally thinking the wrong thing out loud. My very favorite cold warrior comes of as a bit of an airhead in public, because the only thing she feels safe in discussing are interior decorating and clothes. This self-censoring doesn’t end once you leave and no longer have an active clearance. You know what you know, but now you have nowhere to go to discuss it. The obligations of a Department of Energy clearance are for life.
Now, with that out of the way…
I just took a trip to the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, NV, took in all the exhibits and had the pleasure of meeting an 83 year old retiree from the Nevada Test Site. Reading/listening to the interviews sends a very clear message that the Nevada desert is where the American front of Cold War was waged, one nuclear blast at a time, in the opinion of the former Test Site workers. To people that haven’t worked in the nuclear weapons complex, this may sound strident and reactionary. I know it felt a bit wrong hearing it all and that’s me talking. I was only at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for three years and change, but I spent a lot of time talking with and listening to the older workers and retirees (decontamination of facilities is sometimes like doing an oral history project with people who worked there, starting with “I just need to know what you did so I know what danger I might be in”). The Q cleared workers of the Department of Energy carry a very heavy burden that they can never put down, even the former janitors. They have been entrusted with the nuclear secrets of the nation and you’d be surprised how informative very peripheral information, like frequency of trash collection, can be. For this reason, they aren’t free to speak…EVER.You disappear behind the Q and cease to be an individual, you are part of the complex.
They’re used to a sizable population that hates the work they do, but they aren’t allowed to defend their work to the public. On the flip side, they are used to their lives and research being guided by the budgeting whims of elected officials and appointees that, typically, have very little scientific literacy and operate on election timetables. It is funny how the Cold Warriors I used to enjoy talking to felt that while Soviet designers had been their competition, it was Capitol Hill was the actual enemy of Science. A few former Soviet researchers I’ve spoken to said they felt the same way about the American designers and the Kremlin. While Reagan called the national labs “The Arsenal of Freedom”, they never felt particularly held in esteem. The budgets and executive actions deeply at odds with the rhetoric in George W. Bush’s administration was a matter of doublethink that alienated the career workers of the complex further. With all that in mind, this helps inform the proud siege mentality I find many weapons complex workers to have.
It is also important to remember that weapons work is not the only thing they do. In fact, a majority of the Q cleared workers have nothing to do with weapons whatsoever. Just as it was in my time in Antarctica, for every researcher there are at least eight other people there who make their work possible because you certainly don’t want people like me doing carpentry. Only the most arrogant PhD or callous bureaucrat would fail to acknowledge all the other people working to make the national labs a success. Research grinds to a halt when the toilets don’t work, you know?
But then I got to thinking about about countries beyond America, in particular, the United Kingdom and how their workers weathered the shifting political tides, shrinking budgets, and anti-intellectual fervor. For example, I find it hard to believe that in ’70s that there was never an attempt to make a “nuclear union” in the pre-Thatcher era. The tradesmen that work in the weapons program and nuclear power plants in America may belong to their own individual trade unions, but not as a union of workers in nuclear industry.
Something we often gloss over in the history of the Manhattan Project is how many non-Americans contributed to it. Part of the reason this is easy to do is that many of the scientists naturalized and became American citizens, but some didn’t and went back to their home countries after the war. The United Kingdom, in particular, sent it’s researchers to contribute to 1) get them out of England, and 2) hopefully make something that would give Jerry a jolly good thrashing, with agreements of research sharing made in 1943 & ’44. In 1946, with the signature of the Atomic Energy Act and creation of the Restricted Data clearances, all those foreign nationals were sent home with out so much as a scrap of paper for all the work they’d done in Los Alamos.
This, understandably, caused a bit of diplomatic rift between the Washington and London. The subsequent, brusquely denied, request for America to honor their agreements lead to the creation of British nuclear weapons program on a thousand pieces of scrap paper as the scientists were order to reconstitute what they’d done during the Manhattan Project, almost out of spite per Prime Minister Attlee’s papers. They then went from scribbles to a functioning weapons test in about five years, which is damn impressive considering the much more limited resources & manpower of post-war Britain. Some of this story is captured in the novel Spycatcher by Peter Wright, which was banned in Britain at one point…ensuring it’s commercial success.
The British nuclear weapons program has always been small and accustomed to making do with very little, as opposed to the American program who had a hard time spending all the money thrown at them through the 60s & 70s. Where the American workers felt besieged by public and increasingly alienated from the government that employed them, it is hard to get a sense of the experience in other countries. I imagine that Thatcher’s England would have been a close analog to Reagan’s America, but the staggering shifts to the educational system must have had some reflection in the nuclear complex. Subsequent governments don’t seem like they would have been terribly supportive either. What was it like to work there? What projects have we forgotten about because they never hit prime time outside of the gates?
And it is these stories that I would like to reclaim. This is the secret history we are losing as the retirees die, keeping their oaths to the grave. The Atomic Testing Museum and DOE Nevada Site Office are trying to save a small fragment of it but there is so much more out there in the world. The lessons of the “small” British and French programs may be more instructive for the future of arms control than studying America and the Soviet Union’s.
Phil Broughton, 27 January 2011
(AKA Herr Direktor Funranium)