Nuclear Security Expert Talks WIPP, LANL And Non-Proliferation

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News broke last weekend that Los Alamos National Laboratory took shortcuts when treating some nuclear waste headed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. One of the LANL waste drums sprang a radiation leak earlier this year, contaminating workers and closing the facility.

James Doyle spent 17 years at LANL as part of the Nuclear Engineering and Non-Proliferation group, which was tasked with the measurement, control and accounting of nuclear materials. The group travels the world to visit countries that possess weapons-grade material to help catalog and secure it.

Doyle was terminated in July due to a reduction in force. He’s begun doing contract work for Nuclear Watch New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Belfer Center at Harvard University. He says the real reason he lost his job is that he had published an article challenging the logic behind nuclear weapons. 

KUNM: How did you come to this view?

DOYLE: To me, the nuclear weapon only provides you deterrence against the threat that it creates. They’re only good for trying to prevent some other country that has nuclear weapons from attacking you with nuclear weapons. And if they’re ever used, that constitutes tremendous failure of national security policy on everybody’s part.

The MK 6 nuclear bomb produced between 1951 and 1955. Modern weapons are dozens and dozens of times more powerful, according to James Doyle. —Credit: Public Domain

 So it’s not a revelation that I came to recently in life. I’ve always felt that way, and there was kind of an internal conflict working at Los Alamos National Laboratory because that is the birthplace of the bomb, and the primary mission of the laboratory is maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile.

In 1993, the United States had just realized that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a great deal of nuclear material in dozens and dozens of locations throughout now Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. And there was a program that was created for the United States laboratory personnel to go over and provide this type of technical assistance for securing material.

KUNM: Is it your view that this kind of work ensures the public health and safety of the world?

DOYLE: Well, it’s a step in that direction, but ultimately I think that we’ve got to get rid of all weapons-grade nuclear materials and nuclear weapons.

You can’t keep these materials perfectly secure. There are mechanical breakdowns, there’s human error. I feel as though the only real way to significantly lower the probability that somebody’s going to acquire this stuff and be able to build a weapon is to not have any of the weapons-grade materials, period.

There are many many things that have to happen before I would support the United States eliminating its nuclear arsenal, and one of those is that we have to begin a process where all the other countries in the world move towards a legal prohibition against the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-grade materials. Now that idea is as old as the nuclear weapon itself.

KUNM: Do you support nuclear energy?

DOYLE: I believe nuclear energy is an important option for a mix of energy sources as we go forward, and it’s biggest advantage of course is that it is a low-carbon-emission form of generating electricity.

KUNM: And the problem of course with nuclear energy is figuring out how to handle the waste.

DOYLE: Absolutely. We can move to the use of long-term, above-ground, what they call dry-cask storage. There is the possibility of getting the regulations at the WIPP facility in Southern New Mexico so that you could put that type of waste there. But now of course WIPP has been temporarily shut down.

KUNM: Do you think it’s possible to have no nuclear weapons in the U.S. or around the world?

DOYLE: Nine countries have nuclear weapons. Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the use of these weapons in Japan. So try to imagine now, 70 years from today, where nine, 10, 12, or 13 countries possess nuclear weapons. Is it possible to do that and to avoid a nuclear war? I don’t think so.

I think it’s essential that we believe that we can reach another level of understanding with regard to these weapons and we can put in place international mechanisms that prevent their possession and manufacture by all countries.

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