Citizen Engagement

A piece of Cold War history opens to the public

lanl vault

The entrance to "Tunnel Vault" at the Las Alamos National Laboratory. (LANL photo)

Civilians can now get a glimpse of what the term 'critical infrastructure protection' meant during the Cold War, as Los Alamos National Laboratory throws open the thick steel doors of one of its most secret Cold War-era nuclear research and material storage tunnels to public tours.

The tunnel, situated in a remote canyon on the lab's 23,680 acres in northern New Mexico, is set more than 200 feet back into the escarpment's stone wall, according to building historian Ellen McGee. Los Alamos National Laboratories said the "Tunnel Vault" was once one of the most secret and secure locations in the U.S. and is the original post-World War II nuclear stockpile storage area.

Located in research facility's Technical Area 41, the Tunnel Vault was built in 1948 and 1949, according to the lab and is set behind a formidable security perimeter that includes a hardened guard tower equipped with gun ports and bulletproof glass. Beyond that, a series of gates and doors lead to a 230-foot long concrete tunnel that goes straight into the canyon wall to the vault's rooms.

At the end of the tunnel is a large alcove room with a single bank-vault door. Through that door is a vault built inside a vault with five storage areas, all protected with identical bank-vault doors.

Although the laboratory was home to the World War II-era Manhattan Project that produced the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, the post-war tunnel was used only to store nuclear material and conduct research. Its depth and surrounding rock served as an effective radiation shield.

The facility, said a Los Alamos spokesman, had been used as late as 2012 for a variety of purposes. It had been a classified museum since 2004, storing historical objects and materials from the labs. Nuclear research and development activities, however, ended in 2000, following the historic 48,000 acre Cerro Grande wildfire that destroyed or damaged some structures at the laboratories. The fire burned off vegetation above the canyon, creating a flash flood danger from storm runoff, the spokesman said. That flooding danger hastened the vault's retirement.

Tours of the vault are part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory's 70th anniversary "Signature Week" celebrations the week of July 22.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Fri, Jul 26, 2013

You have the wrong area. That was area 51. This is area 41.

Thu, Jul 25, 2013

Transistors salvaged from UFOs that crash-landed in Nevada were kept in this vault. They were germanium PNP junction devices.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group