Maybe this is our opportunity to move from nuclear weapons to energy innovation
By Eric Griego
Thursday, June 21, 2007
The Democratic Congress is proposing major cuts at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs that could remove hundreds of millions of dollars from the state economy and thousands of jobs. The cuts are due in part to what some see as a bloated nuclear weapons budget.
News of the cuts was greeted with near-hysteria at home. The prospect of two of the state's main economic drivers being slashed is worrisome, given that high-paying lab jobs have buoyed New Mexico's economy for a generation.
But could the cuts really be an opportunity? Could the proposed cuts to the labs be the impetus so desperately needed to finally change the mission of both labs to one focused on renewable energy development instead of protecting and developing nuclear weapons?
Conservationists and those who oppose continued nuclear weapons development have tried for years to redirect the mission of the state's two national labs in the direction of renewable energy. Sandia has taken on more renewable energy work over the past several years, but Los Alamos has actually deepened its nuclear mission.
The proposed cuts have put Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in the awkward position of having to defend Los Alamos' expanded nuclear mission - something many of his base supporters oppose. But for local leaders, nuclear weapons jobs, after all, are still good-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, state Republicans are blaming Udall, a recent appointee to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, for not doing enough to protect the millions that have gone to the labs for years. Instead of blame-storming, the New Mexico congressional delegation should do what Colorado's delegation did when the Bush administration tried making cuts to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. The delegation worked across party lines to make sure the lab was spared of most of the cuts.
The best hope of keeping Sandia and Los Alamos off the chopping the block in the future is to diversify their missions now. While nuclear weapons stewardship and development have brought in billions to the state over the past few decades, it is a declining industry. At least most of us hope that our state's future does not lie in pushing for growth in nuclear weapons development.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter called such declines "creative destruction." As older industries stagnate and eventually die, newer technologies and innovations replace them. It is sort of economic Darwinism. To survive, companies must constantly innovate.
But does the argument apply to big public investments like national laboratories? Must they also evolve or die? Or can we keep on spending public dollars on outdated missions?
Most entrepreneurs were driven to invention and success not by being coddled. Most lost their jobs and had to find gainful employment. Sometimes the security of a large, well-funded organization breeds stagnation. Innovation usually comes from bare necessity: survival.
Maybe the shake-ups at Sandia and Los Alamos will be just what they need to start them looking at how they can be more relevant to our biggest national security challenge: energy security. The damage that fossil fuels are doing to the environment threatens millions around the world. Whether it is the potential catastrophic damage caused by global warming, the mercury now found in many native fish, the increasing birth defects or the dirty air from coal-fired power plants that has increased asthma rates in millions of children, we must change our energy mix as a society, or we might face the fate that Schumpeter has talked about in the business world.
This year's funding crisis at the labs might be remembered as the moment New Mexico began truly to lead the nation in the development of renewable energy. That's if our leaders in Washington push for the change, instead of clinging to big dollars that have supported our nuclear past.