Nuckolls joined the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore from Columbia University in 1955. Fourteen years later he received the E.O. Lawrence Award from the President of the United States for his contributions to the development of high efficiency thermonuclear explosives. Although the details of his work during that period with Edward Teller and others remain classified, he was broadly regarded as one of the most creative members of the thermonuclear design division and was the principal designer of several innovative concepts successfully tested at the Pacific Proving Grounds.
During that same period he explored novel methods for fusion ignition of small deuterium-tritium capsules and, following the invention of the laser in 1960, he pursued the possibility of using high-power lasers to achieve that goal. He and like-minded colleagues intensified their research in the early 1970s and they published a seminal paper in the new field of inertial confinement fusion (ICF), “Laser Compression of Matter to Super-High Densities: Thermonuclear (CTR) Applications,”Nature 219, 139 (1972). For the next decade, Nuckolls led "X" Division, the group charged with the theoretical and computational aspects of ICF and, in collaboration with the laser division, they enabled the development of and experiments with a series of increasingly powerful lasers, culminating in the Nova laser in the early 1980s.
In 1983, Nuckolls was selected as associate director for Physics at LLNL and in that role catalyzed the emergence of LLNL as a state-of-the-art research institution as well as an outstanding nuclear laboratory. He pushed the use of institutional research and development funds for a number of imaginative projects: the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Laser Guidestar, the measurement of the neutrino mass, the applications of chaos theory to nuclear weapons and other fields, and a strong collaboration with SLAC and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories on the B-factory. He essentially became the deputy director for Science at the Laboratory long before that became an official position.
In 1988, he was chosen as the seventh director of the Laboratory. He led the institution through one of its most difficult periods as the Cold War gradually ended, with the subsequent stopping of nuclear testing and major reductions in the nuclear weapons budget. He began the transition of the nuclear weapons program from one that included full-scale nuclear testing to one that relied on laboratory experiments, enhanced simulation and scientific understanding.
His time as director is also remembered for three other important actions: the creation of a new organization, the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Directorate (NAI); the first Lab exchange visits with the LLNL’s Russian counterparts; and beginning the process that would lead to the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The Russian exchange, initiated by Nuckolls and Los Alamos Director Sig Hecker would usher in more than a decade of productive interactions with the Russian counterpart laboratories of Livermore and Los Alamos.
He has received many previous recognitions, including: the E. O. Lawrence Award (1969), the American Physical Society Maxwell Prize (1981), Fusion Power Associates Leadership Award (1982), the Edward Teller Medal (1991), election to the National Academy of Engineering (1992) and Fusion Power Associates Distinguished Career Award (1996).
John can be reached at nuckolls2@LLNL.gov