A 'Manhattan Project' to address climate change

A 'Manhattan Project' to address climate change
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With President Biden focused on climate change, an immediate priority will be leveraging our nation’s science, technology and engineering infrastructure to address this existential threat. 

Fortunately, we have a readily capable suite of 17 diverse and highly capable Department of Energy National Laboratories that are up to the task. Effectively applying these national assets, however, will require establishing an effective governance structure and investment strategy to address this challenge in a systematic fashion rooted in science.

The DOE laboratories can support a scientific response to climate change if U.S. government leaders heed a few simple lessons from history. The essential ingredients for success include an urgent, high priority mission to counter DOE’s risk averse culture, setting clear expectations with the laboratories regarding outcomes matching investments — without prescribing their approach — and focused, consistent Cabinet-level attention.

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The Manhattan Project offers an appropriate example of what U.S. science can achieve in a race against time and our nation’s science, technology and engineering infrastructure is rooted in this history. 

What began modestly in 1939 became a full court press under the military leadership of General Leslie Groves in 1942 to weaponize nuclear fission. In six years — 1939 to 1945 — the Manhattan Project grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly $2 billion (equivalent to about $23 billion in 2019.) In the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, “the gadget” demonstrated the ominous destructive force of nuclear fission and enabled a swift victory against Imperial Japan with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

What began as a large, complex military experiment subsequently shifted to civilian control and spawned a network of premier science, technology and engineering assets to support U.S. scientific leadership and — by extension — the arms race. The Cold War decades witnessed rapid expansion and substantial investments in this scientific infrastructure. The sole mission of the weapons enterprise was to rapidly design, test and deploy increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons. Over the course of four decades, no other policy objective or production priority ranked higher than our nuclear deterrent.  

Starting in late 1991, the enterprise underwent two huge surprises in quick succession, namely, the end of the Cold War, quickly followed by Congress’ passage of a nine-month nuclear test moratorium in 1992, extended by President Clinton in 1993. With these dramatic shifts in the international security environment and the limitations on further nuclear testing, the 1990s required major adaptations.

The urgent post-Cold War need to retain critical weapons expertise was resolved by giving the core weapons laboratories a different large-scale, complex scientific challenge. Beginning in 1994 under the banner of the Stockpile Stewardship, three laboratories rapidly shifted their capabilities to ensuring the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons without testing. This undertaking significantly advanced scientific understanding of the weapons themselves by using historic nuclear test data and advanced computing to simulate detonation. The litmus test for mission success is the laboratory directors’ annual certification of the weapon’s reliability and the continued test moratorium.   

These laboratories, including the non-weapons laboratories, have weathered the pause between the end of Cold War largesse and today through continued reliance on either nuclear weapons funding or the funding from their respective DOE sponsoring office (Offices of Science, Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Energy, etc.) 

In all cases, albeit to varying degrees, DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration program office funding is supplemented by applying each laboratory’s manpower or technical prowess to address an evolving menu of national security challenges. Even though these tasks offer new challenges and are often essential to recruiting young talent, these opportunities are usually tactical, short-term and do not confer strategic investments.

The siloed nature of stewardship and sponsorship in DOE, in conjunction with a rapidly evolving national security environment, has given us the worst case outcome. These laboratories are neither adept nor cost-effective at addressing a patchwork of short-term, discrete tasks in response to the national security bureaucracy. In turn, the U.S. taxpayer is funding the least efficient or effective use of these premier science and technology assets. 

Money is not the foremost challenge, however. These laboratories have struggled to redefine their missions. Over two decades of detailed studies underscore that mission malaise renders the weapons enterprise prone to prioritizing compliance over performance. Although in 2001 Congress legislated establishment of the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration within DOE to reassert the priority of the weapons program, legislating a mandate for clear lines of authority does not equate to addressing looming existential threat or provide a singular mission focus. Studies within all 17 laboratories underscore the complexity of effective administration and utilization of such a large and diverse scientific enterprise.  

The DOE website says the laboratories’ strong suit lies in “large scale, complex research and development challenges that entail a multidisciplinary approach” to translate basic research into innovation. Climate change represents such a challenge and requires such an approach. While these laboratories already pursue smaller endeavors focused on climate science — carbon sequestration, advanced reactors, renewable energy  — these efforts are not well coordinated, integrated or prioritized.

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President Biden’s climate change Cabinet, with DOE as its center of gravity, should prioritize a comprehensive approach to fully exploiting our science, technology and engineering infrastructure. With the past as prelude, U.S. science and ingenuity can tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. We have wasted many years buried in division and denial regarding the threat. 

We are way behind schedule in mounting a Manhattan Project to avoid climate disaster. No policy or innovation priority should rank higher. 

Dr. Elizabeth Turpen is the president of Octant Associates LLC and a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She previously authored the report “Leveraging Science for Security: A Strategy for the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories in the 21st Century” (Stimson, 2009) and has supported two high-level congressionally mandated studies focused on DOE/NNSA governance of the national laboratories.