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Sandia National Laboratories

Sandia National Laboratories

1515 Eubank Boulevard SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87123
Telephone: (505) 845-0011
Fax: (505) 845-0098
Web site:

Nonprofit Corporation
Employees: 7,450
Sales: $1.4 billion (2001)
NAIC: 541380 Testing Laboratories

Sandia National Laboratories is one of the major national defense engineering and science laboratories in the United States, funded primarily by the Department of Energy and operated as a subsidiary of the Lockheed Martin Company. For more than 50 years Sandia has been responsible for the design of all nonnuclear components of the nations nuclear weapons. In addition, Sandia has become involved in the detection of nuclear blasts to assist in the verification of arms treaties, as well as research on the Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called Star Wars program. Although much of the labs technology has filtered into the private sector over the years, since the early 1990s Sandia has made a concerted effort to team up with industry partners to take full advantage of its talented scientists and state-of-the art facilities. Sandias main lab is located in New Mexico, with a secondary facility in Livermore, California.

Sandia: A Result of World War IIs Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was the code name for the United States World War II crash program to develop an atom bomb. The design, testing, and assembly of the first nuclear weapons were conducted in the remote location of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although the area was easy to secure, it also presented logistical problems: a lack of housing and utilities and transportation difficulties. To rectify this situation, in July 1945 the predecessor to Sandia National Laboratories was created, the Z Division of Los Alamos Laboratories, dedicated to the design, testing, and assembly of nonnuclear components used in the atomic bomb. After reviewing a number of possible sites for the new operation, the leaders of the Manhattan Project settled on Kirtland Field, an army staging and training facility located near Albuquerque. East of the airfield was a collection of buildings originally used by the Army Air Corps to train aircraft mechanics and that later served as a convalescent center for wounded airmen; it was named Sandia Base because of the local Sandia Mountains. By the last year of the war it was relegated to the task of dismantling surplus military aircraft. Located near a military airfield, it was deemed the ideal location for the new Z Division. With victory in the war in Europe complete and preparations underway to drop the atomic bombs that would ultimately end the war in the Pacific, the Army constructed new buildings, implemented security measures, and transferred the Manhattan Projects Z Division stockpile of nonnuclear weapons parts to the Sandia Base.

Following the war, the research and control of nuclear weapons was transferred from military to civilian authority, the five-member Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. In addition, Z Division passed out of military hands, with AEC oversight of the operation provided by a Sandia field office. With the advent of the Cold War and the continued need to develop nuclear weapons, the AEC soon realized the need to upgrade Z Division, which aside from its pool of talented scientists consisted of little more than some prefabricated huts. In 1948 the operation was elevated to laboratory status, becoming a separate branch of Los Alamos called Sandia Laboratory. Under the leadership of its director, Paul Larsen, Sandia moved quickly to upgrade its facilities and recruit new personnel. When it became clear how large an operation Sandia would become, the University of California, which was charged with running Los Alamos, requested that the responsibility for some of Sandias work be turned over to the Bendix Corporation. Larsen objected, offering a counterproposal: the creation of a nonprofit corporation named Sandia Laboratory, Inc., which would manage the entire operation under the auspices of the AEC. The Air Force recommended that an engineering firm serve as a contract manager, and the heads of the AEC then recruited Bell Laboratories to operate Sandia. Western Electric and its parent corporation, AT&T, shared ownership of Bell Laboratories, and at first AT&T was reluctant to take on the task of running Sandia. It took a personal appeal from President Truman to Leroy Wilson, the president of AT&T, to secure the companys cooperation. Truman wrote that AT&T had an opportunity to render an exceptional service in the national interest. The language of exceptional service in the national interest would become the cornerstone of the labs ongoing mission.

Becoming an AT&T Subsidiary in 1949

Although the AEC expected AT&T to profit from its management of Sandia, AT&T insisted on a no-profit, no-loss contract, which was signed in October 1949. In turn, Western Electric incorporated Sandia as a wholly owned subsidiary. In this way the AEC would be able to easily transfer the operation to another entity should AT&T decide one day to withdraw from the contract. Thus, on November 1, 1949, Sandia was incorporated under Delaware law with stock valued at $1,000, all of which was owned by AT&T and invested in U.S. savings bonds.

Sandia was charged with the surveillance and maintenance of all nuclear weapon storage sites, a responsibility that would last until 1960, when sealed-pit weapons reduced the need for such a high level of care. Because the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear explosion in August 1949 and the Korean War would soon begin, Sandia also was forced to quickly ramp up its operation to improve Americas nuclear strike capability. Foremost was the need to create smaller components to reduce the size of the metal casing that held the large nuclear devices of the day. The bombs were so heavy that aircraft carrier planes were incapable of delivering them, which greatly limited how the weapon could be deployed. Sandia also became involved in developing suitable nuclear warheads for the militarys new guided missile program, which had been jumpstarted by the capture of German scientists. Throughout much of the 1950s Sandia worked on a myriad of nuclear weapons as the United States and the Soviet Union matched achievements. Soon after the United States added fusion, or thermonuclear, weapons, the Soviets followed suit. Sandia became involved in the design of nuclear explosives through its Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which was established in 1952. Sandia pioneered the wooden bomb concept, which led to the creation of nuclear weapons that could be safely stockpiled for a number of years with only a modicum of maintenance yet be ready for immediate use. It also developed the building-block concept, which resulted in the sealing of the fissile material of a nuclear weapon, the physics package, in a capsule that could be used interchangeably with different weapon systems. In addition, Sandia developed the lay down concept for delivering nuclear devices. Because an aircraft was forced to fly low to avoid radar detection and minimize the risk of being shot down, it was unable to escape the blast of the nuclear weapon it dropped. Sandia was instrumental in creating a bomb that could be lobbed in the air as an aircraft escaped and then slowed on its descent to the target by means of a parachute. Making the idea actually work not only required a much stronger chute than was commercially available, it also called for all the parts of the weapon to be significantly strengthened. Instead of exploding in the air, the nuclear device was designed to detonate on impact by means of a spike in the bombs nose, meaning that all of the components had to be capable of working after surviving what amounted to a 50-mile-an-hour car wreck.

The broad array of problems that Sandia had to solve during the 1950s resulted in its scientists making early use of a number of technologies. In the early 1950s Sandia employed IBMs card-programmed calculators and smaller analog computers, and in some cases designed its own computers for specific uses. By 1954 the lab purchased its first digital computer and soon opened 24-hour-a-day computer centers to handle the large number of calculations its scientists needed in their work. In the mid-1950s Sandia engaged in some early efforts in solar energy. Sandias nuclear weapons engineering work also involved the use of plastic and microwave circuits. To protect personnel from handling dangerous radioactive material, Sandia entered robotics. In 1958 the lab created Sandy Mobat, a remote-controlled mobile, however lumbering, robot.

The United States and the Soviet Union agreed in 1958 to suspend nuclear testing. With the moratorium holding, Sandia no longer expanded as rapidly as it had during the previous decade. Now it actually faced the possibility of shrinking in size. When the Soviets resumed testing in 1961, however, Sandia saw its responsibilities shifting to other areas of national security. With nuclear weapons deployed to Europe in support of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Sandia produced the Permissive Action Link that prevented unauthorized use of the devices. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which eliminated atmospheric testing, resulted in Sandia stepping up underground testing as well as efforts to detect nuclear testing around the world. In addition, the lab played a significant role in the design and testing of a number of nuclear weapons, including the warheads for the Minuteman and Poseidon missile systems. During the 1960s, Sandia also took on responsibilities in areas outside of nuclear weaponry. It developed sensors capable of detecting troop movements in the jungles of Vietnam. Its advanced parachute technology would be of particular importance to the NASA space program. Sandia also began to see some of its technology have an impact on private industry. The most important innovation during this period of finding commercial applications was the clean room, adopted by the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. It proved to be pivotal in the development of the modern microelectronics industry. Sandia also invented hot-air solder leveling that greatly benefited the circuit-board industry.

Company Perspectives

Our highest goal is to become the laboratory that the U.S. turns to first for technology solutions to the most challenging problems that threaten peace and freedom for our nation and the globe.

By the early 1970s Sandia was no longer focused on a single mission. It became involved in assessing the safety of Americas nuclear reactors. It developed a Safe Secure Trailer (SST) for transporting nuclear weapons and also became involved in the safe disposal of nuclear wastes. Following the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Sandia became heavily involved in safeguarding all nuclear materials that could be used to create explosive devices. The energy crisis of the early 1970s resulted in Sandia turning its attention to the development of solar, wind, and geothermal power, in addition to improving ways to better obtain fossil fuels. All the while, Sandia continued to work on nuclear weapons, including new warhead subsystems for Minuteman, Poseidon, and Pershing missiles, new cruise missiles, traditional bombs, and even nuclear artillery shells. Moreover, Sandia continued to be responsible for creating sensors to monitor international arms control agreements. To this point in its history, Sandia was little known to the pubic. Then in 1979 it was granted national laboratory status, joining the ranks of the more recognizable facilities at Argonne, Brookhaven, and Oak Ridge.

Becoming Involved in SDI During the Reagan Administration

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, Sandia adjusted to the new administrations priorities. Funding for energy research was cut, while defense spending increased significantly. During the early 1980s Sandias expertise in the design of nuclear weapons was applied to conventional weapons. The lab also became heavily involved in conducting research for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Sandia prospered during this period, but by the close of the 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it faced the challenge of adapting to a new era.

In the early 1990s the country stopped developing new nuclear weapons, which placed even greater emphasis on Sandias role in safeguarding the existing stockpile. The lab also was asked to make its research more readily available for commercial applications. Its national security mission was redefined to include helping the United States stay competitive economically. In 1989 the National Competitiveness Technology Transfer Act was signed into law, which Sandia began implementing two years later. Because its emphasis was on applied engineering rather than basic science, it appeared better suited than the other national laboratories to successfully make the transition to a commercial focus.

Sandias connection to AT&T was seen as a major asset in making the labs research commercially relevant, but in 1992 AT&T announced that after more than 40 years of serving as contract manager it was stepping down, effective September 1993. The U.S. Energy Department, which now oversaw the lab, requested proposals to operate Sandia from 140 organizations, which included four universities, but received bids from less than 30. Martin Marietta was finally selected to run Sandia. Not only did Martin Marietta have experience running the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it agreed to spend $9.5 million of its own money to fund a nonprofit venture capital corporation that would help commercialize the labs R&D efforts. (Two years later Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin.)

Sandia made steady progress during the 1990s in its outreach to private industry, helped in some degree by the Energy Departments decision to allow national laboratories to strike deals with businesses directly, rather than requiring a time-consuming department review. In 1990 Sandia had no Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), but by September 1994 it had 190 in place, worth nearly $600 million. To support its activity in the high-tech arena, Sandia opened an office in San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. Because so many microelectronic companies were publicly traded and needed to concentrate on short-term profitability, they were unable to engage in lengthy research projects, a situation that offered an opening for Sandia, which had the scientists but not the investor pressure. In addition, the lab also became very active in New Mexico, not only working with area universities to bring new technologies to the attention of venture capitalists, but also lending technical expertise to small businesses, at no cost, through its Small Business Technical Assistance Program. Moreover, Sandia scientists and engineers were granted leave under a new venture program to establish start-up businesses using technologies developed in the lab. Sandias success in its new commercial mission was reflected in 1997 when it landed eight of the international R&D 100 Awards. It was especially aggressive in pursuing robotics and micromachines, which promised a wide range of applications, including delicate surgery, clearing minefields, and cleaning up contaminated sites. To facilitate even greater interaction with private companies, Sandia opened a 200-acre research park in New Mexico, which allowed companies closer access to its researchers.

Key Dates

Z Division of Los Alamos Laboratory is formed.
Z Division is renamed Sandia Laboratory.
Sandia is incorporated and AT&T takes over as contract manager.
Sandia is designated a national laboratory.
AT&T announces its decision to terminate its management agreement.
Martin Marietta is named the new contract manager.
Sandia wins eight of the international R&D 100 Awards.

One of the strengths of Sandia throughout its history was an ability to retain talented scientists and engineers. Careers of 30 and 40 years were not uncommon. In the early 1980s the average age of a weapons designer was nearly 40 years, and by the mid-1990s that average would grow to 45. With the move toward more commercial activity in the 1990s, Sandia found itself competing with private industry for talent. The national laboratories also faced security issues in hiring, following the espionage case of Wen Ho Lee at Los Alamos. Roughly half of all students enrolled in physics and related fields were foreign born, who now faced problems in gaining security clearance. Moreover, the Los Alamos case had an adverse effect on the national laboratories ability to attract candidates. For instance, not even a single candidate showed up for a recruiting effort at Stanford University in 2000, a visit that would normally result in 200 applicants. Clearly, one of the greatest ongoing challenges facing Sandia was its ability to replenish its ranks with young scientists. Aside from providing compensation on a par with private industry, Sandia and the other national laboratories had to offer candidates something more: the chance to pursue exciting science. Where that science would lead, and into what areas Sandia would expand beyond its military obligations, remained very much an unanswered question.

Principal Operating Units

Albuquerque; Livermore.

Further Reading

Garcia, Kenneth J., Weapons Labs Retool for New Era, San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1995, p. A1.

Goodwin, Irwin, To Replace AT&T at Sandia, DOE Picks Martin Marietta, Physics Today, September 1993, p. 53.

Hedden, Carole, National Labs Target College Campuses, Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 6, 2001, p. 64.

Johnson, Leland, Sandia National Laboratories: A History of Exceptional Service in the National Interest, Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 1997.

Mora, Caro J., Sandia Turns 50, New Mexico Business Journal, May-June 1999.

Siemens, Warren, The National Labs Changing Role in New Mexico, New Mexico Business Journal, June 1997.

Smith, R. Jeffrey, Nuclear Labs Asked to Shift Focus, Washington Post, July 26, 1990, p. A12.

Spohn, Larry, Sandia Labs Emerges from the Shadows, New Mexico Business Journal, April-May 1998, p. 48.

Weber, Jonathan, AT&T to Quit As Manager of Weapons Lab, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1992, p. D2.

Ed Dinger

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Sandia National Laboratories

Sandia National Laboratories


Founded in 1949, Sandia National Laboratories, located in New Mexico (with additional laboratory facilities in California and Hawaii), is a government-owned facility managed by Lockheed Martin corporation for the Department of Energy (DOE). Sandia was originally managed by AT&T, but in 1993 Lockheed Martin assumed managerial control.

Sandia scientists and engineers participate in projects and programs designed to ensure the safety of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and maintain a high level of reliability in aging weapons. Increasingly key to safeguarding the nuclear stockpile is the development of high-speed virtual simulation capabilities that are able to model the complexities of the changes in weapons material as a function of time. Sandia programs also support the development of technologies and protocols that facilitate nonproliferation and secure control of nuclear materials (e.g., enhance weapon and surveillance technologies). Specific programs to enhance offsite monitoring include the advancement of robotics systems capable of monitoring proliferation activities.

Sandia supports programs seeking to assist Russia to safely manage and control nuclear materials from dismantled Soviet-era weapons systems.

Other less direct, but equally emphasized programs, are designed to enhance U.S. national security by developing technologies to protect critical infrastructureespecially energy production and delivery infrastructure. A specific aim of current Sandia projects involves potential integration of pulsed power technologies into defense-related applications. Other programs related to infrastructure protection are dedicated to extending the protection levels of radiation-hardened microelectronics.

In an effort to combat emerging threats, Sandia scientists and engineers are tasked with anticipating the need for new defense options and for developing technology capable of identifying (and neutralizing) biological and chemical agents. One Sandia innovation, "Amazing foam," is a nonhazardous decontaminating foam capable of rapidly neutralizing both chemical and biological agents.

Another Sandia innovation, the "magic cube," is capable of shaping a blast that blows a fragment-free hole in steel. Such developments have broad application. Magic cubes can be used to enhance low-invasive inspection of steel encased materials or to blow a hole in steel beams obstructing rescuers attempting to search through rubble or reach victims of a building collapse.

Sandia also devotes research resources to advancing techniques involved with hazardous material clean-up and the safe decommissioning and dismantling of obsolete weapons. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories California collaborated with researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on the development of environmental remediation technologies useful in the cleanup of military disposal sites (e.g., the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station).

Sandia's technology transfer programs (where facets of defense related research are released and shared with private industry) are designed to increase United States' global economic competitiveness. The transfer is a bilateral arrangement that also allows industry input in defense design schemes. Other public programs sponsored by Sandia include educational outreach programs designed to foster excellence in scientific curricula and teaching.

Sandia scientists and engineers are highly involved in nuclear weapons production. Sandia designs and engineering integration impact and more than 6,300 parts of the estimated 6,500 components of modern nuclear weapons. Other programs designed to enhance national security includse highly specialized and sophisticated modeling and testing facilities that allow Sandia scientists to test updates to weapons systems without actual nuclear testing. Failsafe technologiesdevoted to preventing accidental nuclear detonationinclude sophisticated arming and firing systems (e.g., the MC2912 arming system utilized on the W76/Mk4 nuclear warhead).

Sandia's sensory technology programs are designed to detect nuclear materials as well as chemical and biological weapons agents.

Scientists at LBL, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratories California have also collaborated on the development of environmental remediation technologies useful in the cleanup of

military disposal sites (e.g., the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station).

In April 2003, Sandia scientists reported that they had achieved controlled thermonuclear fusion in a pulsed power source. If ultimately reproduced and verified, the process, and other competing approaches to controlled fusion, holds the promise of nearly unlimited clean power generation. Unlike fission reactions, fusion based energy technology would not produce long-lived radioactive waste.

Instead of using magnetic containment to compress hydrogen and thereby achieve temperatures hot enough for fusion to occur, Sandia scientists used pulsed releases of current to achieve a rapid series of limited micro fusion reactions. Using an improved and more powerful Z accelerator, high current is induced in a tungsten wire cage surrounding a 2 mm plastic capsule containing deuterium (a heavier isotope of hydrogen). The tungsten cage is vaporized, but the short-lived current impulse generated in the wires creates a powerful magnetic pulse and shock-wave of superheated tungsten that creates an intense x-ray source that, along with the shockwave compresses and heats the hydrogen to more than 20 million degrees Fahrenheit (more than 11 million degrees Celsius) to induce fusion.

The Sandia reaction process contrasts with another promising approach undertaken at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that seeks to initiate fusion reactions by shining high-energy lasers on hydrogen globules. The LLNL approach will be further explored at the National Ignition Facility.



United States Department of Energy, Office of Science. National Laboratories and User Facilities. <> (March 23, 2003).

United States Department of Homeland Security. Research & Technology. <> (March 23, 2003).


Argonne National Laboratory
Brookhaven National Laboratory
DOE (United States Department of Energy)
Environmental Measurements Laboratory
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
Los Alamos National Laboratory
NNSA (United States National Nuclear Security Administration)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Plum Island Animal Disease Center

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