Sep 17, 2007
Sunday, September 16, 2007
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted help figuring out how to guard municipal water supplies against terrorists, the agency turned to Sandia National Laboratories scientist Bill Hart.
Hart had been working on a small project, funded with Sandia's own money, to study ways to increase the security of water systems. The EPA liked his work, and since 2003 has spent more than $5 million to continue it.
Sandia is first and foremost a nuclear weapons lab, but recent years have seen a dramatic diversification.
"Clearly it's been a priority for the leadership at Sandia, and I think they've been much more successful at diversifying the work that they do," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, at Los Alamos National Laboratory diversification has been slow in coming.
Lab diversification has become a hot topic because Congress is flirting with significant cuts in the U.S. nuclear weapons program— the core mission of both Sandia and Los Alamos. The question is how non-nuclear weapons work can be used to buffer the cuts.
Congress has not settled on a final budget for the 2008 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. But a worst-case scenario could see hundreds of millions in budget cuts at the two labs, and both labs have warned workers that layoffs— potentially numbering in the thousands— are possible.
In June, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., issued an open letter calling for a dialogue among New Mexico political leaders on diversification at Los Alamos and Sandia.
"We need a bipartisan, statewide effort to ensure our scientists have the funding needed to do the nation's work in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world," Udall wrote. "I believe we need an open discussion about the best way our labs can contribute to these efforts and diversify their missions."
In the months since, Udall and others have focused their energy on Los Alamos.
"Sandia has done this in the last six years," Udall said. "I think they saw this coming."
Sandia has always had more non-Energy Department work than Los Alamos. But in recent years, the disparity has grown dramatically.
In 2006, the most recent year for which complete budget data is available, one in three dollars spent at Sandia came from federal agencies other than the Department of Energy. At Los Alamos, the figure is one in 10, a proportion that has held steady with only minor ups and downs since 1999.
Diversification at Sandia is a conscious strategy. Beginning in the 1990s, Sandia management realized a decline in the nuclear weapons budget was inevitable and began pursuing non-weapons work, said Sandia deputy director Al Romig.
Los Alamos has taken a different approach, saying that it is up to the federal government to define the lab's mission or to call for diversification, said spokesman Kevin Roark.
"We don't decide what our mission is," Roark said. "The federal government does."
Both Los Alamos and Sandia have always had diverse research portfolios. A wide range of skills is needed to design and maintain nuclear weapons, and those skills inevitably end up being useful for other things.
Sandia scientists have designed some of the world's fastest supercomputers and are leading experts on the geology of nuclear waste sites.
You can also find Sandians with expertise in the nanotechnology of seashells and the theoretical details of how water gets things wet.
At Los Alamos, you will find experts in detecting water on the moon and deciphering the mysteries of quantum mechanics.
Los Alamos scientists study the human genome, and one of the lab's most famous scientists made his name studying the evolution of early humans in Africa.
But it is in broad budget trends, not individual scientific anecdotes, that the real measure of lab diversification can be found. And by that measure, Sandia has become a far more diverse institution since the late 1990s.
Division of duties
Established during and shortly after World War II, the two labs share responsibility, along with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, for the design and maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons.
There is a clear division of duties. Los Alamos and Livermore handle the complex physics of the nuclear weapon's heart. Sandia does the engineering that turns the explosive into a usable weapon, designing the electronic circuits that arm and fire it.
That has led to the development of very different skill sets at the two labs. Sandia is frequently described as an "engineering lab," dealing with a more practical set of problems, while Los Alamos is home to a group of theoretical physicists.
Those differences in skill sets have made diversification easier for Sandia than it has been for Los Alamos, because its expertise is more applicable to problems outside the nuclear weapons world.
"I do think the fact that Sandia is an engineering laboratory primarily has made that somewhat easier for them to transition out of the nuclear weapons work into other areas," Bingaman said.
But Sandia has also pushed diversification. Hart's project illustrates how they did it.
The work started small, paid for with an internal fund intended for forward-looking research. An EPA official heard Hart give a talk about the research, which resulted in a small initial grant to see how to best deploy sensors in water supply systems to protect against terrorist threats.
Pleased with the work, the EPA then gave a second grant, Hart said.
The total so far, just $5.4 million, is a small fraction of Sandia's work for non-DOE agencies, which totaled $716 million in 2006, according to data from the National Nuclear Security Administration. But it illustrates how Sandia management has tried to diversify its research portfolio.
Much of Sandia's non-nuclear weapons work remains firmly entrenched in the military world.
The Pentagon and the intelligence community are major customers. But the expansion has allowed Sandia to grow. Employment levels at the end of 2006 were the highest in Sandia's history, despite a declining budget for nuclear weapons work.
Los Alamos, by comparison, did just $219 million in work for non-DOE government agencies in 2006.
Los Alamos' approach, as explained by lab director Michael Anastasio at a July meeting of the New Mexico state Legislature's Los Alamos National Laboratory Oversight Committee, looks very different from Sandia's go-go diversification of recent years.
Any fundamental makeover of the lab's mission would require a dramatic change in direction from Washington.
"We don't set policy," he said.
Such a change in direction could require a whole new set of skills and infrastructure that the lab currently doesn't have, he said.
Anastasio said there's no consensus in Congress as to what the lab's mission should be, adding that even "the New Mexico delegation does not have unanimity in this regard."
But the lab's work has always adapted to the needs of the country, Anastasio said, from addressing the energy crisis in the 1970s, counterproliferation in the 1980s and terrorism in the 1990s.
"We'll see where we end up going in the new century," Anastasio said.
Journal staff writer Raam Wong contributed to this report.