Sep 17, 2007

N.M. Labs Looking Beyond Weapons

By John Fleck
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.

Examining missions
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.


Anonymous said...

"We'll see where we end up going in the new century," Anastasio said.

Spoken like a executive with truly poor leadership skills. Hey, let's all just hang out and see were this thing takes us. No need to shape our future. No need to get all worried about the need to diversify LANL. Let's just sit around and let others tell us exactly what we can and cannot do. Those SNL people are soooo pushy when it comes to designing their future!

And for this, Mike gets the big bucks? Amazing!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mike, I think I know exactly where LANL will end up going in the new century, and I think you do too.

Let's be honest. The plan is to turn LANL into a big Pit Factory where both Bechtel bosses and the LANL Director can all earn nice annual bonuses.

I can already hear that factory steam whistle blowing in the wind and the pit bosses yelling to the workers, "Get to work people. We have an ambitious pit quota to fill this month!"

Anonymous said...

As has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, the U.S. (Bush administration, if you must, for a few more months)doesn't have a nuclear weapons policy. So who's to say Los Alamos will become only a pit production facility. There is presently no need for pits and won't be far into the future. Farther than originally thought, evidently, as decomissioning is apparently occuring more slowly than anticipate. If government decisions could be made about that, perhaps the mission at Los Alamos could be diversified. First things first.

Anonymous said...

There were some wink-wink comments going on yesterday in the All Managers Meeting about Complex 2030 being renamed. It's now "Complex Transformation" by NNSA since the previous name didn't sell to Congress. Which I guess just shows that our management is no more or less stupid than the agency they pander to.

Gussie Fink-Nottle said...

Anastasio's excuse:

"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."

What a mealy-mouthed excuse. Sandia didn't wait for someone to tell them to diversify, they exercised good business sense and took up the initiative on their own years ago. By making this tired old excuse for not diversifying, Mike continues to demonstrate the tradition of weak leadership which LANL is now famous for.


Anonymous said...

It's a bit more complicated than that, Gussie. To the extent than LANL and Sandia were "operated by" anything other than DOE and its predecessors, Sandia was operated by AT&T, a private corporation, LANL by a public university. There are some importance differences in the histories of the labs.

Gussie Fink-Nottle said...

I am familiar with the different histories of the two labs, 7:12. Nothing in LANL's past would have prevented it from diversifying as SNL has done. Nothing, that is, except poor leadership.

The fact that a corporation ran SNL does not change the fact that SNL has always been a DOE lab, just as LANL has.


Anonymous said...

LANL's unwillingness to diversify in the past can definitely be attributed to UC's poor leadership. LANL's unwillingness to diversify at the present point in time is more likely due to the new corporate contractor's desire to convert LANL's primary mission to pit production, a much more profitable venture than diversification. Bechtel and BWXT's corporate greed are the drivers now. Anastasio is just their mouthpiece.

Anonymous said...

Bahgdad Bob Kevin Roark is full of it again.
Nanos did not want WFO because of the accountability and public knowledge when the projects did not get done on-time and/or in-budget. He also didn't like the sponsors' complaints about high labor rates.

The lack of diversity at LANL has nothing to do with waiting for the DOE to tell us to do it.

Anonymous said...

So what makes Pit Production more profitable for Bechtel? Doesn't LANS get its 79 megabucks, no matter how they manage (or mismanage) the Lab?

Anonymous said...

Ok, 9:02.

It might be a good idea to put on your thinking cap *prior* to posting next time.

The $79 million annual LANL contract award is chicken feed compared to the fees that Bechtel would rake in from building a new pit fab facility at LANL. Construction cost estimates are in the $billions. Bechtel is a construction company that knows how to milk a government construction contract.

Likewise, BWXT stands to rake in a fortune from running the new production facility. Both revenue streams: building; operating the proposed new facility would dwarf the present puny $79 million annual contract award.

Anonymous said...

"So what makes Pit Production more profitable for Bechtel? Doesn't LANS get its 79 megabucks, no matter how they manage (or mismanage) the Lab?"

It would be the construction of the facillities to make a pit factory. They would get the contract for that.

Bothered said...

So most of the comments are bashing LANL for not diversifying enough, or starting soon enough. Scroll down the page to the article "NASA cuts LANL satellite project" Here was a WFO project that was reportedly successful (I'm not on the project, I just go by what I haer about it). In fact, this was the second follow-on project, which argues that it really was both successful and useful. Yet NASA cut it just before completion because they have to cut their budget. So when you're diversified, you're still at the mercy of somebody else's budget crisis.

Blog moderators: consider cross-posting this under the NASA WFO post, too.

Bothered said...

And another thing...

As soon as the wall came down, this lab took the position that we shoudl apologize for our existence. Ding, dong, the cold war is over, no one will ever, EVER need any weapons scientists doing any weapons work ever again, isn't the world peaceful, safe, and wonderful. We have floundered looking for a replacement mission ever since. Staggering after every possible mission - "Yes, yes, we're brilliant scientists, of course we can do that too! Just please don't be mad at me for designing nuclear weapons!" but somehow never folloing through is a hallmark of LANL management, all the way back to Brown at least, and to some extent Sig. And they've all been caretakers since then - even Mike, whose latest contribution is to support this new improved mission MaRIE whatever that's supposed to be. Same problem. We're certainly not the only ones to do this. Most government labs, and many academicians, never saw a wild idea that they didn't like, if it came with money attached. Why can't we stand up and say, "Look, what we do is useful. You can't just throw the things away, and we have to make sure we stay at least as smart as the bad guys. And this is how much infrastructure it takes to do that." Plus the additional infrastructure to do all the other useful research around here. Yes, there are a bunch of sandboxes, so maybe the managers should earn their salaries by prioritizing the sandboxes instead of just rearranging them and trying to redefine them into swimming pools.

Gussie Fink-Nottle said...

My criticisms of LANL management certainly includes the fact that they did not start diversification attempts years ago. As importantly, however, is the fact that LANL management has allowed LANL FTE rates to reach such exorbitant levels that they would scare off most WFO sponsors, had LANL been attempting to engage them. The recent loss of the NASA sponsor is a clear example of how outsiders simply cannot afford to send work to LANL.

Now, of course, it is too late. Every foreseeable action that our crack LANS management team would endeavor seems *designed* to raise the FTE rates even further. It's pretty clear to me that LANL management still does not want WFO sponsors.


Anonymous said...

LANL management is in denial about the coming declines in the nuclear weapons budget. They have been for many years. They have become addicted to taking the easy route, and that meant letting FTE rates soar to the sky while feeding at the seemingly endless stream of NNSA funding. It's was a lazy style of management, and it's now going to cost LANL dearly.

There is no excuse for any of this behavior. Good management would have diversified the lab years ago, like SNL did, in preparation for the coming storm. It reminds me of the old Aesop's "Ant and the Grasshopper" tale about preparing for Winter. SNL are the ants and an idle LANL is the grasshopper. The air on the Hill is beginning to feel a little nippy in the early mornings of late.

Anonymous said...

We write frequently about the lab's FTE rate. Are all FTE's the same? In other words, do you get more or less support, without incurring extra charges, at LANL?

Anonymous said...

12:56, not all of LANL will pay the price. Let me know when some managers get riffed. Really riffed, not replaced and put elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

3:48pm: No, different tax-rates are used depending on the customer (LDRD, DOE, NIH) and the division. For example, FTE's are cheaper for T-div compared to, e.g., C-div due to the lower facility costs (no experimental labs at T-div).

Anonymous said...

Re: 4:48

Do you get what you pay for?

Anonymous said...

Fundamentally, the reason why Sandia, and other labs (PNNL, Oak Ridge, and even Livermore) have been more successful in diversification is for two reasons. The first is that everybody understands that the weapons program IS the priority at Los Alamos. Try to perform nonweapons work that can compete with weapons work and you immediately have difficulty in meeting schedule. And the sponsors who would fund work at Los Alamos are aware of this. Second, on average, an FTE at Los Alamos is about $60 MORE per hour in costs than the labs indicated above. Simply put, we cost too much. Any RIF will not solve that problem. Any six-sigma exercise won't reduce our costs. And the management that is LANS doesn't really care to look at ways to reduce costs.

Anonymous said...

"...everybody understands that the weapons program IS the priority at Los Alamos."

That's a bit myopic, if not to say inaccurate, 8:15. Ever heard of a nuclear weapons lab in California that goes by the name of Livermore? They aren't much more diversified than LANL is. Further, Los Alamos could go away tomorrow, and DOE's precious core NW capabilities would still exist at LLNL.

[Insert outraged retort about how much better LANL is than LLNL here.]

As far as what the priorities at LANL are these days, they are

1) preserve LANS' award fee,
2) hand out those bonuses to upper LANS managers, and
3) build those RIF lists.

Anonymous said...

LANS management has no real desire to diversify LANL regardless of what they may be saying.

If the weapons budget suffers, those at the top of the LANL food chain will not feel any pain. Therefore, why should they bother with serious attempts to broaden our project portfolios?

Now, if we had metrics that tied LANS management to delivering on their diversification promises, things might be different. However, it will be a cold day in Hell before you see any such metrics emerge either from LANS or from NNSA. The future will bring us higher FTE rates and even greater dependence on the declining nuclear weapons funds. Pit production is being planned as the backup to help fill in the gaps.

Anonymous said...

"We write frequently about the lab's FTE rate. Are all FTE's the same?"

When I left LANL several years ago, FTEs were charged to programs based on their position in the salary bands. For instance, TSMs were grouped in $10,000-wide salary bins (e.g., $90,000 - $100,000). Assuming the two TSMs working on your project earned $95,000 and $105,000, your project would cost more to a sponsor (all other things being equal) than a project down the hall where the two TSMs earned $85,000 and $95,000. I don't know if this is still true.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 10:27 PM, it is still true.

It is also true that (1) the cost in the bands tend to rise along a power curve formula and (2) there is rarely any attempt to apply inflation indexing to this banded cost structure to help re-normalize it.

The effect of all this is that the longer you have been at LANL, the greater the probability that you will have moved up the FTE cost bands due to inflation adjustments of your salary. Thus, the longer you stay at LANL, the more you will inevitably cost to your sponsors. This increased cost will be much greater than the rate of inflation.

The problems in the banded FTE cost structure have been around for many years, but LANL has shown no intention of fixing any of this as it helps produce more money for management overhead and the support operations.

It offers an automatic method to increase the available funds for our bloated management and support with each passing year. It also acts as a means to punish those who get a significant raise, because, as your salary goes up, your FTE costs drastically increase, and thus, your job security decreases due to your astronomical FTE labor expense.

All in all, it's a very sick system for those who have to go out and secure their own funding, but it's a great system for protecting those in management and support, so don't think for a minute that LANS will ever make any attempt to change it.

Anonymous said...

(From LLNS Presentation viewgraph, May 30th, 2007):

Four integrating themes ensure that LLNL continues to provide
outstanding value and exceptional service to the nation

¯ Leader in Complex 2030 Integration

¯ Strong mission delivery and aggressive WFO growth

¯ Enhanced business and operational performance

¯ Exceptional S&T that anticipates, innovates, and delivers

Note the second bullet on "aggressive WFO growth". Interesting, no?

I've seen no similar commitment to aggressive WFO growth from LANS.

All Mike seems to have is pitiful excuses as to why we can't do it.
But LLNL can?

Anonymous said...

Boo hoo. Your rates go up with your salary. Turn down your raises if you don't like it.

Join reality, crybaby.

Anonymous said...

9/19/07 3:17 AM, curiously enough, it's not clear that a salary increase can be "undone" by the time the employee finds out what it is. But I have heard of at least one TSM who requested (in advance) no raise because it would put them into the next salary band and they would no longer be able to pay their own salary off their projects.

Anonymous said...

1:50, the wild part is that other than the second part of your Item 2, LANS basically makes the same statements.

Anonymous said...

OK, poster 3:17 AM. Which part of LANL do you work in, management or support? It's clear from your "crybaby" comment that you are not a working level TSM who must be concerned with securing project funding.

Anonymous said...

Someone made a statement that LLNL's WFO is actually decreasing. Is that statement true?

Anonymous said...

I can second what 7:16 AM said. In fact I know of a female Lab Fellow who did not want a raise for the same reason and she was refused her request due to fear of a lawsuit. So much for trying to save money. LANS really doesn't give a shit about saving money - all they care about is making good people want to leave. And the more Lab Fellows who leave, the better (since they cost so much more and they are huge pains in the asses sticking up for science and crap like that).

Anonymous said...

Saw today that the NNSA declared another 9MT plutonium as surplus. Perhaps LANL should consider going after the $10B boondoggle now being built at Savannah River to disposition plutonium that is surplus into MOX fuel. As we have an operating plutonium facility, we could save the government billions to take pits apart as opposed to building them. No need for new and costly plutonium facilities.