A recent New York Times article revealed that work analyzing potential Iranian nuclear futures has been spread across our existing nuclear lab enterprise:
The classified replica is but one part of an extensive crash program within the nation’s nine atomic laboratories — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Livermore among them — to block Iran’s nuclear progress. As the next round of talks begins on Wednesday in Vienna, the secretive effort remains a technological obsession for thousands of lab employees living the Manhattan Project in reverse. Instead of building a bomb, as their predecessors did in a race to end World War II, they are trying to stop one.
A senior official of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Kevin Veal, who has been along for every negotiating session, would send questions back to the laboratories, hoping to separate good ideas from bad. “It’s what our people love to do,” said Thom Mason, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “It can be very rewarding.”
Given the stakes in the sensitive negotiations, the labs would check and recheck one another, making sure the answers held up. The natural rivalries among the labs sometimes worked to the negotiators’ advantage: Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the mountains of New Mexico, the birthplace of the bomb, was happy to find flaws in calculations done elsewhere, and vice versa.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that this is being done in support of our negotiations with Iran over it’s nuclear program. And it is nothing short of fantastic that we have the infrastructure and scientific capability and capacity to undertake this kind of analysis-on-demand.
But why can’t it also exist for disaster preparedness? I could make an argument that for the foreseeable future the risk of a devastating hurricane striking a major metropolitan area or an earthquake hitting the West Coast or New Madrid fault poses an even greater danger to the U.S. than a nuclear-armed Iran.
Did we make similar investments in our disaster preparedness following Hurricane Katrina? Nope. Sandy? Nope. Near misses in pandemic diseases, such as SARS or avian flu? Not really.
I understand that our nuclear labs and related infrastructure have been built up over decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union. That is an investment that is pretty much unparalleled in the history of our nation. But I can’t help but be a little disappointed that after any number of close calls or slightly less than absolutely devastating disasters our willingness to invest in research and development aimed at preventing, responding to, mitigating against, and recovering from disasters has been so weak.
What will it take to change this dynamic? Hopefully something far short of a combined earthquake, tsunami, nuclear event.