Sandia National Laboratories - From the Manhattan Project to a National Lab

Sarah Blair
May 28, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

The Z-Division at Los Alamos

Fig. 1: Main campus of Sandia National Laboratories at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, NM. (Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories and the DOE)

Although discovering and understanding the fundamental science behind creating an atomic bomb was the primary task and feat of the Manhattan Project, an arguably equally important requirement of the project was engineering the bomb itself (i.e. developing a means to harness the enormous energy held by the bomb and use it whenever and however we would like to). Consequently, the project's central laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico created a specific division, the Z-Division, that would be devoted exclusively to the engineering problems associated with producing a nuclear bomb. [1] Following World War II (WWII), this division was transferred to Sandia Base (shown in present-day in Fig. 1) just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico to facilitate transportation needs while the United States military continued to push for the development of nuclear weapons. [1] At this point, because the war had concluded, the government had to consider the question of who would take over control of the nuclear weapons program - should it remain in government hands, or should it be passed over to civilians?

Developing the National Labs

In November 1945, a group of atomic scientists who had been involved in the creation of the atomic bomb formed the Federation of American Scientists, through which they advocated for civilian control of further nuclear weapons research and development. [2] In 1946, their hopes were answered through the Atomic Energy Act, which established a five-member civilian Atomic Energy Commission that would oversee the nuclear weapons program under the advice of a Military Liaison Committee, which would have no direct control over the program. [3] The goal of this commission was "improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace," and its first act was to develop a national laboratory system that would be devoted to furthering nuclear research. [4] However, the Z-Division at Sandia Base was not yet given the status of a national lab. In 1946, its duties were still almost entirely focused on weapons production coordination, including engineering design, assembly, field testing, and production. [5] The Truman Doctrine in 1947, though, was the catalyst to a change in Sandia's responsibilities. The doctrine called for the containment of Communism, and weapons research was consequently increased. [1] It was during this year that the Z-Division at Sandia Base became its own engineering laboratory separate from that of the fundamental nuclear research being conducted at Los Alamos. [1] Then, in 1948, the Z-Division was officially named Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) and in 1949 transitioned from being managed by the University of California to the manufacturing branch of AT&T. [1]

The Cold War

Sandia's early responsibilities during the 1950s continued the work the lab had been performing following WWII. It was primarily focused on improving the manufacturing of weapons and improving safety and reliability of the weapons, as well as streamlining weapon casings. [5] During this decade, President Eisenhower aimed to build up the United States' nuclear arsenal, including weapons such as missile warheads and submarine nuclear weapons, resulting in SNL's involvement in the approximately sixty weapons programs. [5] During these years SNL also carried out testing of non-nuclear weapon components. For example, it created a rocket launching facility in Kauai, Hawaii, as well as developed parachutes and tested artillery firing capabilities. [5] Additionally, SNL developed tests to simulate weapon performance in extreme environments such as extreme heat or cold, as well as under high impact and spinning conditions. [5] Work such as this continued throughout SNL's first twenty years, until shifts in government interests altered SNL's research focuses.

Sandia Through the End of the 20th Century

In 1974, the world energy crisis prompted Congress to split the Atomic Energy Commission into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration, which became the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977. [6] Therefore, being a DOE laboratory, SNL shifted focus from primarily nuclear engineering research to energy development research in addition to maintaining the nuclear energy arsenal. [5] In this effort, SNL investigated wind technology, photovoltaics, and fossil fuel recovery. [1] Although heightened Cold War tensions in the 1980s again boosted weapons development, SNL has since reverted back to more environmental issues, including acting as a consultant for the development of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada. [5,7,8]

Environmental and Nuclear Security Issues in the Present Day

In the past two decades of the 21st century, SNL has participated in a wide range of environmental projects. In 2011, SNL assisted in analyzing the migration of the radioactive plume following the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident by using drones to monitor airborne radiation. [9] Additionally, SNL assessed the feasibility of using wave-powered water pumps as a source of clean energy to pump seawater to desalination plants. [10]

Sandia's current official research areas are: nuclear weapons, defense systems and assessment, energy and climate, and global security, with the mission of "exceptional service in the national interest." [5] Ultimately, we can see that the Manhattan Project introduced not only one of the most destructive weapons humanity has ever seen, but also a scientific and engineering laboratory infrastructure to attempt to safely harness this technology and perform general research in the national interest.

© Sarah Blair. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. A Ulrich, "Cold War Context Statement: Sandia National Laboratories California Site," Sandia National Laboratories, SAND2003-0112, January 2003.

[2] M. B. Sethi, "Information, Education, and Indoctrination: The Federation of American Scientists and Public Communication Strategies in the Atomic Age," Hist. Stud. Nat. Sci. 42, 1 (2012).

[3] "Atomic Energy Act of 1946," 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2011-2021, 2022-2286i, 2296a-2297h-13 (2016).

[4] A. Buck, "The Atomic Energy Commission," U.S. Department of Energy, July 1983.

[5] L. Johnson, "Sandia National Laboratories: A History of Exceptional Service in the National Interest," Sandia National Laboratories, SAND97-2019, 1997.

[6] "Energy Reorganization Act of 1974," 42 U.S.C. Sec. 5801, 5811-5821, 5841-5851 (2016).

[7] J. Uang, "The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[8] J. Garcia, "The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[9] J. McMahon, "Drones to be Deployed as Nuclear Fallout Detectors," Forbes, 13 Mar 13.

[10] B. Ikenson, "Wave-Powered Water Pumps Could Become a New Source of Clean Energy," Popular Mechanics, 25 Oct 17.