The invention of the laser and its proliferation in scientific settings created a unique problem for the United States government starting in the 1960s. The Cold War regime of nuclear secrecy had required an absolute legal distinction between “peaceful” civilian technology and “dangerous” military technology : the former needing wide dissemination and development by the private sector, the latter being tightly regulated under penalty of imprisonment and possibly even death. But the emergent technology of laser fusion, whereby small pellets of hydrogen fuel were imploded to thermonuclear densities with high-energy laser beams, challenged and blurred these Cold War categories. For its proponents, which included both international scientists and private entrepreneurs, laser fusion held out the hope of clean, limitless power generation during a time of increasing energy instability. But at its heart was a form of physics that was, for government censors, far too near to the methods used in the design of advanced thermonuclear weapons. This talk will use newly declassified files to tell the international history of laser fusion in the 1960s and 1970s as a case study for looking at the unusual classification problems of late Cold War nuclear technology, ignited by a proliferation of new scientific tools (such as the laser), new forms of scientific actors (such as ex-weapons scientists working for the private sector), and new attitudes towards classification and secrecy (such as a willingness to resist control by private industry).
Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science in the Program for Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. He received his PhD in History of Science from Harvard University in 2010, and has a BA in History from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to taking his position at Stevens, he was a postdoc at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Managing the Atom program, and at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. His research work focuses on the history of nuclear technology. He is completing a book on the history of nuclear secrecy in the United States, from the Manhattan Project through the "War on Terror," to be published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the author of Restricted Data : The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, and the creator of the NUKEMAP, a popular on-line nuclear weapons effects simulator. His research has been published in scholarly periodicals such as Isis, but also in popular sources such as on NPR’s Radiolab and Morning Edition, and he has written articles for the websites of The Guardian and The New Yorker.