Sep 29, 2007

LANL's Future In Weapons At Center of Fight

ABQ Journal
Saturday, September 29, 2007

LANL's Future In Weapons At Center of Fight

By John Fleck
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer

Should Los Alamos National Laboratory someday become the nation's
"permanent" plutonium bomb manufacturing center?

That is one of the major policy questions behind the fight currently
under way in Congress over the lab's budget.

The House of Representatives has passed a spending plan for fiscal 2008
with big cuts to the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Members of the Senate are
pushing back.

While much of the public attention surrounding proposed cuts to Los
Alamos' budget has focused on the potential for big staff cuts at the
Northern New Mexico lab— as many as 2,500 jobs may be at stake— big policy
differences lurk behind the budget fight.

The biggest share of the cuts the House wants to make at Los Alamos—
roughly $200 million— are targeted at plutonium manufacturing.
An alternative Senate spending plan, touted as a way to save Los Alamos
jobs, would restore nearly all of that money.

"This is obviously much more than a jobs issue," said Greg Mello, head
of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, an anti-nuclear weapons

Uncertainty over plutonium manufacturing at Los Alamos has lingered
unresolved for 15 years, since the Rocky Flats bomb plant in Colorado was
shut down.

During the Cold War, Los Alamos made only a small number of pits for
research and testing. But with Rocky Flats closed, Los Alamos has been the
only place in the country capable of making pits.

In the years since, the federal agencies in charge of Los Alamos have
repeatedly tried and failed to build a Rocky Flats replacement.

Simultaneously, they have been upgrading Los Alamos' ability to manufacture
small numbers of bomb parts.

Los Alamos' plutonium capability has always been billed as a bridge to
the future when the Rocky Flats replacement is completed. But the latest
round of budget battles appear to have killed that project off once again.

The House's response to the uncertainty over the future of plutonium
manufacturing was to cut the budget. Otherwise, the House Energy and Water
Appropriations Subcommittee concluded in a June report, Los Alamos would end
up as the undeclared but de facto permanent plutonium manufacturing site.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., speaking at a July gathering at Los Alamos
National Laboratory, said he believes that's already happened.

The Senate, in a riposte largely engineered by Domenici, is trying to
restore the funding cut by the House.

The $200 million difference between the two plans will be one of the
largest pots of money and most significant policy differences on the table
in coming weeks as House and Senate negotiators try to hammer out a
compromise spending plan for the 2008 federal budget year.

Half the money would go to ongoing small-scale pit manufacturing work at
Los Alamos. The House subcommittee, in its June report, argued that the
spending made no sense without a clearly articulated long-term pit
manufacturing plan.

The other half of the money represents a down payment on a new lab at
Los Alamos to support future plutonium manufacturing work— the Chemistry and
Metallurgy Research Replacement building.

The House subcommittee report language was blunt. The project, the
subcommittee concluded, "has no coherent mission to justify it unless the
decision is made to begin an aggressive new nuclear warhead design and pit
production mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory."

The Senate spending plan provides the funding for the new building. And
Domenici, in comments he made in July, was frank about the new lab's
importance for plutonium manufacturing. But he also argues the new plutonium
lab is important even if Los Alamos does not have the bomb-plant mission. In
a statement Friday, Domenici called the lab "integral" to work maintaining
existing nuclear weapons.

The dispute puts Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in a difficult position. He
has been working with Domenici to block deep budget cuts at Los Alamos. But
while supporting a limited pit production mission at Los Alamos, he said he
opposes large-scale manufacturing there.

"I don't think it's appropriate for Los Alamos to become the de facto
pit production center for the entire weapons complex," he said in a recent

Bingaman's suggestion involves some funding for pit manufacturing work
now ongoing, but consideration of a delay in construction of the new
plutonium lab.

"I think having some manufacturing funding there for Los Alamos is
appropriate because that is an ongoing activity," Bingaman said.


Anonymous said...

Another excellent article by John Fleck. He got to the real heart of the matter with this one.

Average Joe said...

This push to turn LANL into a production pit factory has been around ever since RFP was shut down. The pace of the push picked up with the introduction of Nanos, and has become blatantly obvious with NNSA's selection of the Bechtel-backed LANS as the new M&O for LANL. The only thing that really surprises me is how long it has taken most people to realize that DOE and NNSA plan to turn LANL into RFP-South.

I know I'm not that much smarter than the average Joe, but I could smell this coming back towards the tail-end of Nano's lab-wide shutdown. When it became clear that Nanos and UC management did not care that WFO was being purged from the lab by the shutdown, all the pieces fell into place for me.


Anonymous said...

I have a couple of beefs with this article.

First, in the definition of "cuts." Let's be clear about something: the House budget restricts the growth of the pit manufacturing program, while the Senate budget significantly increases the Pit budget. Regardless of these changes, the design and certification portions of the LANL budget were slated to decrease as the W76-1 and B61 Alt 357 went into production. The W76-1 in particular was a huge engineering effort over the past few years which we KNEW was scheduled to ramp down. To his credit, Brett Knapp took steps in FY07 to reduce the workforce in his directorate (mostly contractors). My beef is that the article only addresses the changes in the Pit budget and ignores what's going on in the engineering and physics side of the weapons program.

Second issue: The CMRR facility is absolutely not solely driven by ramping up pit production. It has been in planning and design ever since the original CMR facility was declared too expensive to upgrade to current seismic requirements. LANL has ALWAYS had a facility for research on plutonium chemistry and materials science. Always. The specific size and capability of THIS design for CMRR are driven in part by the "interim" (ha ha) Pit Manufacturing mission. But we need this new building regardless, even if we never design or manufacture a new pit for the stockpile.

Anonymous said...

Poster 11:14 AM, you seem to know a lot about the CMRR project. So here is a question for you. I understand that the first "hole" over on Parijito Road with the rebar and all is the CMRR project which was authorized by Congress, at least at some level.

The question is, what's going on with that other big "hole". It seems that construction may be taking place that isn't yet authorized by Congress. Is this true?

John Fleck, who has read the NNSA project documentation, is also a bit puzzled about that second big "hole" on Parijito Road.

Anonymous said...

Our Glorious Future?

LANS can't even think of laying off any Hispanics or woman without having an equal number of white males, mostly highly paid TSMs due to LANL demographics. Thus, this RIF is going to be brutal on the scientific staff. A lot of the current TSM staff are going to be shocked when they find their names on the LANS RIF lists. Unfortunately, the layoffs won't do anything to help reduce overhead expenses. In fact, after the RIF, the ratio of direct-funded to indirect-funded workers will get worse. Likewise, the already outrageous ratio of managers to direct-funded workers will worsen. This will cause FTE labor rates to rise even higher, accelerating the need for additional layoffs at a future date as incoming project dollars support less and less programmatic hours. Scientific diversity will falter and what little WFO work is left will finally be priced completely out of the market. Even the funds supplied by NNSA for weapons work will only go so far, again, causing additional cuts in the weapons staff. Continuous layoffs will bring out the worst in everyone. With continuing budgetary shortfalls, LANS will be forced to keep non-management salaries reduced and continue to cut worker benefits. The "us" versus "them" mentality between workers and top LANS staff will only widen. With LANL becoming even more dependent on NNSA, LANL will be forced to take on more production work in an attempt to create new jobs. The pit factory will begin construction sometime in the next 5 years as a separately facility outside the domain of LANS. A beaten down LANL and Los Alamos citizenry will welcome it with open arms and few questions. It will largely be run as a profit center for Bechtel and BWXT. Morale, already at rock bottom, will continue to fall and the best scientific staff will be eager to get out of town. The economy of the town of Los Alamos will be severely beaten down as those who wish to sell their homes will find no takers during the next five years. Poor County planning in regards to the expected GRT income and the gold-plated County projects now being planned will cause property taxes to soar in the next few years, even though most cash-starved citizens will be poorly equipped to pay the higher tax rates. Continuous and unrelenting stress by all the above will cause the usual social problems to flourish in the community (i.e., crime, increased divorce rates, drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, etc.). People who leave the Hill and come back to visit in 5 or 10 years won't recognize the place any longer.

On the other hand, the LANS executive staff will increase their salaries and regularly receive 20% bonuses from NNSA for following orders without question. You'll see more high end luxury cars driving around town as the wealth at the top allows a few people to live extremely well. Life will be very good at the top, but the competition to get those few jobs will be especially vicious.

Oh, and Terry Wallace will be the next LANL Director after Mike decides to leave in another year or two. Bummer.

If anyone has another plausible scenario that isn't so bleak, I would love to hear it. We could all use some cheerful news.

Anonymous said...

I'll make a prediction. The coming RIF and exactly how it is implemented will make or break the future of LANL.

My suspicions tells me that LANS is probably not up to this difficult task, but we'll see soon enough.

Anonymous said...

2:54 PM makes an interesting point.

Given a 2007-2008 LANL RIF, what do people see as the least harmful outcome??

What is the worst possible outcome??

Anonymous said...

"LANS can't even think of laying off any Hispanics or woman without having an equal number of white males."

Not that it matters, but isn't the protected class list larger than just Hispanics and females? Doesn't it also include Native Americans, Blacks, Asians and Indians at LANL, +...?

"A lot of the current TSM staff are going to be shocked when they find their names on the LANS RIF lists."

As a TSM, I won't be one of them.

"In fact, after the RIF, the ratio of direct-funded to indirect-funded workers will get worse..."

Not disagreeing as to the possibility of it playing out this way, but if I get RIF'd, I just can't see myself paying much attention to what happens at LANL after that. Pretty much game over for finding an equivalent job in NM, so I can't see being able to continue living in LA.