BY LAURA MULLANE
LANL Communications Staff
When Nerses “Krik” Krik Krikorian was born on a Turkish roadside in 1921, the future looked bleak. His parents were fleeing the Armenian genocide that would ultimately claim 1.5 million lives. They spent the next four years moving from country to country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, trying to find a permanent home.
Along the way, in Aleppo, Syria, his mom gave birth to his brother. “It’s a tortured way of living because you don’t belong anywhere,” recalled Krikorian. They finally found refuge in Canada. When Krikorian was 4 years old, they moved to the United States, settling in Niagara Falls, where his father became a factory worker and his mom a homemaker, and where his youngest brother was born.
Today, at age 96, Krikorian lives in a brightly lit condominium in Los Alamos, surrounded by his vast art collection and family photos, marveling at his good fortune. When he started kindergarten in Niagara Falls, he barely spoke English. Sixteen years later, he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and began a job at Union Carbide, working in a lab that made highly enriched uranium. For what purpose, Krikorian wasn’t sure.
“I’d read a book somewhere that speculated that uranium was a fission thing. But I didn’t know what ‘fission’ meant. I’m a chemist, not a physicist,” he said with a laugh. It was 1943 and, unbeknownst to him, Krikorian was knee-deep in the Manhattan Project.
When the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Krikorian knew then what he’d been working on. “I thought, ‘Well, the war is going to end,’” he said. “And I hope we never have to use it again for any reason.”
Embarking on a notable technical career
After the war, as Union Carbide wound down its uranium work, he was approached with an offer to move to the desert southwest to continue working on the Manhattan Project. Krikorian had never been west of Detroit when he set out with a friend in a 1936 Chevy convertible to make the long drive to New Mexico. He arrived at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe on Aug. 19, 1946, to get directions to his new home.
He was immediately taken with the Pajarito plateau. Years later, when his father came to visit, he told Krikorian the rugged mountains and arid climate reminded him of the old country. “Deep down, maybe I had some connection to it that I don’t even remember,” he said.
Krikorian began work at the Laboratory. “And what do I work with? Stuff I can barely see. I went from working with kilograms of uranium at Union Carbide to micrograms of highly radioactive polonium. I went from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
The move to Los Alamos proved to be a good one. It’s where he met his wife, Katherine “Pat” Patterson, who came to Los Alamos in 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project as a member of the Women’s Army Corps; raised his daughter (now a retired Army lieutenant colonel); and enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned four-and-a-half decades.
He began by working with polonium to prepare polonium-beryllium initiators and then moved to Project Rover in the mid-1950s to develop a nuclear-thermal rocket for space applications. Specifically, Krikorian’s challenge was to ensure that the materials would support the rigorous demands of nuclear propulsion at high temperatures. “The program was technically challenging and in a temperature domain where little research had been done,” he wrote in an essay published in 2000 (“Essays on the Future: In Honor of Nick Metropolis”).
Krikorian had a notable technical career, holding six patents and publishing a range of analyses and technical assessments on everything from laser isotope separation and high-temperature reactor materials to directed-energy nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons testing.
From “stateless boy” to intelligence-unit security officer
So in 1972, when Laboratory Director Harold Agnew approached Krikorian, asking him to join a newly formed intelligence unit just as Project Rover was being cancelled, Krikorian wasn’t so sure. “I was publishing three or four papers each year and had a good group of technicians helping me,” he recalled. “Why would I want to change? Why should I join something new when I’m doing something productive?”
Krikorian’s wife, who had served a year with the State Department before marrying Krikorian, saw it differently. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you do something that contributes in a more general way?’ She was right.”
Only six staff were originally assigned to the intelligence unit. Krikorian doesn’t know exactly why he was chosen, but suspects that his broad background in both weapons and materials science had something to do with it. He took advantage of every opportunity to learn—taking courses in advanced mathematics and metallurgy. Although his parents weren’t educated themselves, they saw the value in education and pushed Krikorian and his two brothers to pursue it at every opportunity.
Krikorian’s selection for the intelligence unit was also no doubt spurred by the fact that he spoke fluent Armenian and some Russian. When he was a child, his parents forced him to not only learn to speak and write Armenian, but to understand the country’s history, culture, and literature. “As a kid, I thought it was useless,” he said. “Why do I need to learn a language that hardly anyone speaks? I guess God knew what was coming.”
His knowledge of Russian came later, in the 1960s, while he was working on Project Rover. “To do well in high-temperature chemistry, the only books I could find were in Russian. So suddenly I’m studying Russian and translating Russian science into English.”
The new intelligence group was productive “almost overnight,” rapidly delivering useful information to the U.S. government. Soon after the unit was formed, Krikorian was named the group’s security officer. Krikorian still marvels at the fact that he, who arrived in the United States as a boy with papers that labeled him as “stateless,” could be in charge of security for a U.S. intelligence unit.
A deep commitment to national security
Of course, the new work wasn’t without its challenges. An intelligence analyst’s job is a nuanced one. “The role of an analyst is to connect all the dots together,” said Krikorian. “You have to make an educated guess based on your own experience and what you observe. None of it is clear cut. If someone says to you, ‘Prove it,’ that’s not going to happen. You never have all the facts.” The constant fear, he said, was that he would make a mistake because he missed a technical or political bit of information.
But the rewards of the job were worth the struggles. “I’m an American,” he said. “I feel obligated to this country. Look at what I’ve been able to accomplish here.” Consequently, he feels a deep commitment to national security. The intelligence analysts were all motivated, he said, to keep the peace. “The use of a nuke is serious business. You don’t want to create a situation that inflames tensions and gets people killed.” He recalled being at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s for an above-ground test of a low-yield nuclear device. “This was a toy compared to a real weapon. I was seven miles away from ground zero and I felt the heat when it went off. Most people today don’t have a clue just how powerful these weapons are.”
Krikorian retired from the Laboratory in 1991. Today, he looks back on his achievements – Laboratory Fellow, recipient of the Los Alamos Medal (the Laboratory’s highest honor), the CIA’s coveted Intelligence Community Medallion, two honorary doctorates, and countless other recognitions – and expresses not pride, but gratitude.
“Things have worked out far beyond what I ever imagined. I think of my parents and wonder, ‘How did they ever do it?’ To be born on a roadside in Turkey to this,” he said, gesturing to his home. “My parents instilled in me the importance of doing the right thing and giving back to your fellow man. I hope I’ve done that.” To those who’ve known him, he’s done that, and much more.