On Monday, current LANL director Charlie McMillan called Agnew, who was 92, a national treasure who transformed the lab.
“His contributions to the laboratory made us the institution we are today,” McMillan said. “It was his vision – decades ago – that recognized that national security science brings value to a broad spectrum of breakthroughs. Los Alamos and the nation will be forever in Harold’s debt.”
He was the lab’s third director, succeeding Robert Oppenheimer and Norris Bradbury.
In 1943 during the Manhattan Project, Agnew, who was born in Denver, came to Los Alamos as a graduate student. He was a scientific observer on the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan — the first-ever use of an atomic bomb in war.
“After we dropped our gauges I remember we made a sharp turn to the right so that we would not get caught in the blast — but we still got badly shaken up by it,” he recalled in an interview. He also took the only existing movies of the Hiroshima bombing as seen from the air
After World War II, Agnew completed his graduate studies under Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago and returned to Los Alamos to work in the Weapons Nuclear Engineering division, where he stayed until he became lab director.
Under Agnew’s directorship, Los Alamos developed an underground nuclear test containment program, completed the Clinton P. Anderson Meson Physics Facility, acquired the first Cray supercomputer, and trained the first ever class of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
He is credited with developing fail-safe methods for nuclear weapons that are still used today.
Following his career at Los Alamos, Agnew became president and CEO of General Atomics, a position he held until 1985. He chaired the General Advisory Committee of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and served as a science advisor to the White House from 1982 to 1989.
“Harold was also extremely influential in promoting the safe application of nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity,” LANL historian Alan Carr said in a lab news release. “His foresight was remarkable and his work resonates today.”
Former Los Alamos Director John Browne said: “Harold was one of the pioneering leaders in nuclear science and technology. His many contributions over the past 70 years have left a positive legacy on Los Alamos and the nation.”