Jul 28, 2007
Journal Staff Writer
SANTA FE — Jittery workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory won't have to worry about their jobs for at least the next couple of months, director Michael Anastasio says.
Anastasio said there would be no further cuts at the nuclear weapons lab before the new federal budget year begins Oct. 1.
"I'm confident that we will not have to do anything ... through the end of September,'' he told an oversight committee Friday.
What happens after that depends on what level of funding is authorized by Congress for the new fiscal year.
The House slashed $300 million from the lab's budget, which currently is nearly $2.2 billion, signaling the exasperation of key House leaders with years of safety and security lapses at Los Alamos.
The Senate hasn't voted yet, but its bill leaves the budget mostly unchanged. A conference committee would produce the final version.
If the House spending plan was adopted there would have to be job cuts, said Anastasio, who just finished his first year as head of the lab under its new, private operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC.
But he said the outcome of budget negotiations is far from certain.
"I know there's a lot of anxiety ... I don't want to heighten the anxiety of the employees and make them feel like I'm predicting it's going to happen,'' he said.
The lab had to do some belt-tightening this year because of higher costs due to the new management setup. It lost a tax break it enjoyed when it was run by the University of California, for example, and had to pay the state an additional $50 million this year.
More than 300 contract jobs were eliminated in the year that ended June 30, the director said. In addition, there was the usual turnover — including retirements — that accounted for about 370 additional departures, Anastasio said. Some of those jobs were filled, but lab officials were unable to say how many.
According to figures provided earlier by the lab, there were more than 12,000 workers as of the end of April. Just over 9,000 of them were LANS employees, 1,000 or so were students and postdoctoral researchers and more than 2,000 were contractors, including security and maintenance workers.
If next year's budget remains much the same as this year's, no drastic changes will be needed in the work force, Anastasio said.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a written statement to the committee that the funding fight in Congress is a signal "that change is needed'' if the lab's future is to be secure.
He said it is "now up to LANS to decide whether it wants to diversify and thrive, or remain focused only on its current mission, which, as we have seen this year, means an uphill battle.''
Anastasio told the panel that the lab — where the atomic bomb was born — is "grounded in our heritage and history'' and that nuclear weapons are an important deterrent and part of the nation's defense.
Nearly 70 percent of the lab's work is defense or national security or weapons-related, according to lab officials.
But Anastasio said the lab's mission had undergone shifts since its founding in 1943, and that it welcomed any new work the federal government wanted it to do — and provided funding for.
The lab doesn't set policy, he told lawmakers.
"I would love to have a huge program at this laboratory to deal with the challenge of water,'' in areas such as water management, distribution and contamination cleanup, Anastasio said.
State legislators expressed concern that changing the lab's core mission from nuclear weapons work to energy or another focus would jeopardize national defense and erode the influence of the facility, which is northern New Mexico's largest employer.