John Fleck just sent me this, with the following note:
Written by John Fleck Wednesday, 31 October 2007
When I was working over the last week on this morning's story on the National Nuclear Security Administration's "Complex Transformation," there was an interesting subtext that didn't make it into the story, but that is worth fleshing out in a bit more detail here.
It's the question of the future of science at the labs.
Both Los Alamos and Sandia are fundamentally research institutions, but they both have long been involved, to greater or lesser degrees, in nuclear weapons manufacturing as well.
Back in the 1990s, when the Cold War ended and the federal government was trying to figure out how to shrink the footprint of its massive nuclear weapons complex, both Sandia and Los Alamos picked up production missions that used to be done at weapons factories that were being closed. Sandia, for example, now makes little gizmos called "neutron generators" for U.S. nuclear weapons. The plant that used to make them, Pinellas in Florida, was closed. Los Alamos, meanwhile, took over the manufacture of beryllium parts once made at Rocky Flats, outside Denver.
Most importantly, Los Alamos has picked up interim responsibility for making plutonium pits, which were also made at Rocky Flats. One of the big issue hanging fire right now is the question of whether that interim job because a permanent assignment. Major infrastructure spending decisions hang on the answer to that question.
The interface between research and weapons manufacturing has always been an uncomfortable one, and that issue is lurking behind the current discussion about the "transformation" of the nuclear weapons complex. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., issued a statement to me yesterday about the subject. It didn't make the story, but it's worth sharing:
I have had initial briefings with the NNSA, and I have stressed to the NNSA that strong investment in the scientific capabilities of our labs must be included in any long-term plan to reform and manage the complex. This new plan must also involve a long-term evaluation of our nonproliferation capabilities of the national labs. We cannot forget the importance of science facilities and the important role advanced computing has had on our stockpile stewardship program. I have encouraged the DOE to improve its vision for investing in scientific research and advanced computing at our national laboratories which will put them in the best position to excel in the future.
Clearly Domenici, guardian of the labs, thinks an emphasis on science is important, and must be included in the final plan that when it comes out in November or December.
I didn't put it in the story because I'm not sure what, in practice, it might mean in terms of the NNSA's proposal. But it will be worth watching how NNSA, in its proposal, characterizes the role of science in the labs' futures.