By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican
June 15, 2007
Concerns over budget, layoffs cast shadow over progress made at lab
LOS ALAMOS — Mike Anastasio can’t move fast enough.
He’s led an effort to produce new plutonium pits, or triggers, for the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He’s rallied new corporate managers in an effort to overhaul long-standing safety and security concerns. He avoided layoffs to permanent workers by cutting contractors and other efficiencies. And he had confidence that the country’s nuclear weapons can again be certified without underground nuclear testing, which is one of the main missions at the lab.
“Los Alamos has responsibility for more than 80 percent of the on-alert strategic deterrent currently in the U.S. military inventory,” U.S. Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, both R-N.M., recently wrote in defense of the lab. “In the absence of nuclear testing, the country has relied on the two nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos and Livermore, to annually assess and certify that the United States’ strategic nuclear deterrent is safe, secure and reliable.”
But Congress might cut Anastasio’s budget anyway. People are worried about layoffs. Many lawmakers appear tired of bad news from Northern New Mexico, like the time last October when police found classified information in the home of a former lab contract worker.
Thursday’s blockbuster didn’t help either: Apparently some officials might have used open e-mail networks to share information about nuclear weapons, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., reported.
The past year has been a mixed bag for Anastasio and the lab. The weapons programs are on track, Anastasio said, and the lab remains a scientific powerhouse, according to the number of scientific papers cited.
But the lab lost an important contest to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which designed a better replacement nuclear warhead for the government. The latest security scandals further eroded the lab’s management reputation in Congress, where the federal checks are written. And even if the lab does an excellent job at its weapons programs, some New Mexicans and many in Congress don’t want more nuclear weapons work. Furthermore, citizen groups are furious that pollution from the lab continues to leak into the environment.
The whole point of bringing Anastasio and his private company to manage the lab was to make the place more efficient, accountable and organized.
“The government obviously wanted to see some sustainable improvement here, at this institution, when they ... competed this contract,” Anastasio said in an interview last month. “And so as I reflect on the year, I believe we came with a clear vision for this laboratory to be the premier national security science laboratory for the 21st Century.”
The government agency that oversees the lab appears moderately pleased with the one-year performance and says the lab is on track to complete two-thirds of its jobs by Sept. 30, from weapons quality to health and safety goals. The management company could earn $73 million for a job well done.
“We are meeting all our milestones in our weapons area,” Anastasio said.
That includes a mission to make 10 plutonium pits for the W-88 Trident warhead, he said. Some have been built and submitted to the government for a quality review.
“That’s a great accomplishment for this laboratory,” Anastasio said.
The lab director has invited U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to “help celebrate the delivery of the first certified W-88 primary,” which was made at the lab.
“This milestone is important for the nation because it is the first time the United States has manufactured a pit for use in the nuclear weapons stockpile since the Rocky Flats plant closed in 1989,” Anastasio’s invitation reads. “ ... Because of the investments made in the stockpile stewardship tools, this will be the first primary to become part of the nation’s nuclear deterrent without the need of an underground test.” He added this is the culmination of years of hard work by lab chemists, engineers, physicists and technicians.
But national security has a different meaning for some, like Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He said the pit program is years overdue and over budget.
“But it just goes to show how far behind the times the lab really is,” Coghlan said. “ ... I predict that New Mexicans and the American public will be eager to join the lab in celebration when it finally changes its mission. Los Alamos should prioritize real national security threats like global climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, instead of encouraging proliferation through new nuclear weapons production.”
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said the new contract has increased overhead without anything to show for it. “The lab ... hasn’t been noticeably oriented toward the environment or any progressive reinterpretation of its mission,” he said.
Changing the mission of the lab has been a hot topic since the House Appropriations Committee essentially moved more money into energy research and basic science, and took away from the lab weapons programs all over the country.
But changing the mission at the lab isn’t that easy, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said this week. “That’s not an easy thing to do,” Domenici told radio reporters. “If you want to change the mission of the laboratory you have to have the money to change the mission of the laboratory. So if you’ve got $425 million, I assume you could change the mission of the laboratory. And nobody’s got $425 million because the House used it for all kinds of things, but didn’t create a new mission for Los Alamos National Laboratory, that’s for sure.”
Still, Domenici, Udall and U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., say the lab needs to diversify its work. About 67 percent of its budget was weapons-related in the 2006 fiscal year, according to a lab budget provided to the New Mexican. About $1.4 billion was included in weapons activities out of a $2.1 billion budget.
When asked if the lab budgets have peaked, Bingaman said he didn’t know.
“I think it depends on successful the lab is and how successful the Department of Energy is in identifying a more diverse set of mission that the lab can work on,” Bingaman said last month. “I would doubt that we’re going to see increases in DOE funding for nuclear weapons related work. But that doesn’t mean there will not be an increase in other areas that the lab could be involved in.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet weighed in on lab funding for 2008.
Bingaman, who chairs a policy, not an appropriations committee, said his vision for the lab is that it “needs to be more diversified than it had been ... so that more of its work is in areas other than nuclear weapons. I think that would be good for the lab and good for the country.”
Domenici, also speaking late last month, said lab officials “should begin now to make plans about their scientific future, because I think that is bright. I think it is important that they begin thinking about it.”
When pressed, he said, “I’m not saying less weapons. I’m saying more science.”
Udall has requested New Mexico’s Congressional delegation meet with lab officials for a “long overdue” discussion about the lab’s future.
“Every single one of the government agencies that I’ve observed in this appropriations process is having a very serious problem with funding,” Udall said recently. “The budgets are very, very tight.”
Of those voicing concerns about the lab’s future is retired physicist Ken LaGattuta who has written a letter to Udall. “Perhaps what this very large, and currently over-funded, collection of single minded weaponeers ... should experience is the enforced regimen of a strict low-weapons, or even no-weapons, diet,” LaGattuta wrote. “Indeed, this is something that Congress could actually do to them, which would be a benefit to us all.”
Anastasio talked at length about how national security means different things now than it did 50 years ago. “The Cold War’s over,” he said. “The standards for safety and security are higher. And so we have to continue to evolve as a laboratory ... ”
When asked if that meant a more diverse mission than mostly stockpile work, Anastasio said, “Sure. I think that’s what ... the mission of the lab is now. It already is that. And I think there are continued opportunities for this laboratory to help the country’s security in this broad kind of definition of security.”
That means securing confidence in the weapons stockpile, but also work around nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, the environment, renewable energy and nuclear power, he said.
“That’s the sort of thing that a laboratory like this can help the country do,” he said. He added that he’s proud of the employees for producing wonderful work despite turmoil in recent years.
Contact Andy Lenderman at 995-3827 or email@example.com.