Nov 6, 2007

Editorial: U.S. must decide future of nuclear policy

From the Albuquerque Tribune.

The hand-wringing in New Mexico has begun in earnest, as the national pendulum appears to be swinging back toward reducing the costs - and perhaps the importance - of nuclear weapons.

The state, everyone knows, is home to two of the nation's three nuclear weapons laboratories - Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and Los Alamos National Laboratory west of Santa Fe.

The contest between Congress and the White House for public approval of their plans to reduce federal spending has budget, staff and program cuts at the billion-dollar labs once again on the chopping block.

For many reasons, the nation's nuclear weapons complex - including Sandia and Los Alamos - could be easy targets. But if history is a judge, any inertia for real change could be overwhelmed by the fear that national security will suffer, if the nation significantly reduces its commitment to and funding for nuclear weaponry.

Still, the many lumbering freight trains that are the nuclear weapons complex and its largely hidden programs appear headed for a collision:

Since February there have been reports - reaching a crescendo in recent days - that the Bush administration is prepared to sacrifice over the next two decades as much as a third of the complex, 25-to-30 percent of its work force and perhaps much of the expensive stockpile stewardship program that was based on maintaining the nuclear arsenal without bomb-testing.

Plutonium pit production, long expected to be located at Los Alamos, remains up in the air, with the Pantex nuclear weapon factory in Amarillo considered the major competitor. The pits form the cores or triggers of modern nuclear warheads.

In the latest in a series of negative reports on Los Alamos lab security, funding and safety, a major lab contractor was found to have routinely underestimated work costs, recovering the additional costs through an "other costs" budget category that totaled more than $41 million last year.

Los Alamos in September lost its stockpile of bomb-making plutonium to a cost-saving consolidation plan that will move it to a South Carolina plant.

Increasingly visible opposition is arising to expensive proposals to build new nuclear warheads or even remanufacture existing warheads already in the stockpile in favor of comparatively more simple tune-ups of existing warheads.

It all adds up to confusion and uncertainty - and not just for federal investment in New Mexico and other states that host nuclear weapons facilities.

These states - with New Mexico at the top of the list - have benefited economically from the facilities but also have at times had their environment and safety compromised by the chemical and radioactive work done at them.

In the nation's security interests and in the interests of states such as New Mexico that have had vital interests in the nuclear weapons complex, it's time for the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration to vet their future plans for the complex, in as comprehensive and public a fashion as possible.

The process should begin with an honest, open and nonideological discussion about what U.S. nuclear weapons policy should be and how best to reflect it in our nuclear arsenal, from the ground up.

In the context of this administration's obsession with other nation's weapons of mass destruction, particularly in Iraq and Iran, it is obligatory that we have our own nuclear house in order.


Anonymous said...

Looks like the weapons research and stockpile stewardship programs at LANL are headed for big cuts. NNSA appears ready to accelerate plans for constructing new buildings that emphasize the production side of the complex instead of research.

This will require lots of worker layoffs in the next few years to pay for it all, with LANL on the receiving end for a major part of these cuts. We may not need nearly as many TSMs in the new NNSA world.

The bad news just keeps on coming.

Anonymous said...

NNSA has been playing word games with some of their news releases about the future of the complex. Allow me to simplify what I think NNSA appears to be telling the workforce. It can be summed up in one simple sentence:

"Don't think about making a career out of a job at one of our NNSA labs."

Anonymous said...

Never fear. The restaurant association of New Mexico recently voted to hire as many layed off scientists from Los Alamos and Sandia as possible, who are interested in learning the culinary arts. There are hundreds of potential openings in this area right now. However it's unlikely that more than a couple of dozen of the "best and brightest" in our midst will will be retrainable. Too bad we don't have more horse stables in the area.

Anonymous said...

A view of Los Alamos facing LANL cuts and a County and School District bent on adding more minimum wage jobs and housing.

Trinity Site Realities and Alternatives

By PATRICIA MAX Special to the Monitor

Is anyone promoting the proposed Trinity Site development willing to mention the two-ton elephant in the room? This elephant represents the situation at LANL, brought on by privatization incurring tens of millions in new gross receipts tax (GRT) obligations to New Mexico and unprecedented management fees being paid out of the LANL budget. Currently no one understands what the effects of the FY2008 federal budget will be on LANL. However, it is obvious that privatization, management fees, GRTs and other associated costs will not be absorbed by a downward spiraling budget without grave impact to LANL’s mission and employment situation.
Job losses caused by FY2008 budget shortfalls are projected to continue for several more years as the DOE downsizes the national laboratories.

Instead of addressing the elephant in the room, the county and the school district continue down the path of developing a 1980s shopping center, apparently hoping that cheap Chinese products, typically offered by “national retailers,” will keep Los Alamos afloat, will support funding the county’s $100-million construction program, and will add to the school district’s operating budget.

Compounding this is the proposed construction of approximately 300 more homes when the housing market is soft. There may be good reasons to move school and county functions off Trinity Site. There are no good reasons, however, to develop Trinity Site and the school district’s adjacent 25-acre A-8 parcel as currently planned.

Adding more housing to what will become an overloaded housing market, in an era of continued LANL downsizing, will not benefit the county or school district if houses stand empty for months on end. Decreasing LANL’s size and programs will decrease the amount of GRT revenues returned to the county. Since LANL, the county, and the school district do not shop locally, to any significant extent, the brunt of supporting the county and the school district will fall even more on the shoulders of residents, resulting in higher sales and property taxes.

Many who are “restructured” out of their LANL jobs could benefit from retraining for jobs that keep them employed in this community. What opportunities exist here? There is a tremendous shortage of nurses and teachers, especially math and science teachers. Couldn’t UNM-LA, the county and the school district together develop a plan to address these shortages? Citizens tied to this community because of homes they cannot sell or spouses still employed here might not be able to drive to Albuquerque or even Española daily for classes. UNM-LA is a convenient alternative, particularly if it transitioned into an institution granting four-year degrees.

Moreover, expanding the Small Business Center to support LANL employees who want to form small companies can certainly benefit the community. Small high-tech businesses could attract new funding into the community because they do not require the tremendous overhead that LANL demands. These businesses also could provide employment for local residents laid off by LANL. Such companies could provide new jobs, not low-wage retail jobs, and employees will not need to be bussed to Los Alamos like migrant farm workers because a potential local workforce already exists. The 20 or so offices at the Research Park dedicated to this type of program is not at all adequate for the amount of work that could be captured from LANL by private enterprise.

Finally, the need for affordable housing is real. But are there alternatives to construction? Could HUD’s Teacher Nextdoor, Officer Nextdoor, and The Home programs make already existing housing available as affordable housing? Are there creative financing options that would enable current homes to be sold for the appraised value but purchased as affordable homes? Are there grants that will allow the owner to sell a home at its appraised value but allow whoever qualifies to purchase at a lower price?

An expanded UNM-LA and an expanded Small Business Center, built at Trinity Site instead of a 1980s shopping center, will not only provide lease income to the county and the school district, but will contribute to the long term financial stability of the community better than a shopping center with a few stores, offices to lease to a shrinking LANL, and a large amount of housing dumped onto an already stressed market. If community leaders are dedicated to improving the financial stability of the community and the schools, supporting education, value-added employment, and creative programs to provide affordable housing is the answer.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the Bush White House plan for the nuclear weapons complex irrelevant since they will be out of office in one year and two months?

Anonymous said...

6:24 pm:

You're assuming the Democrats (if they are elected) will change the nuclear weapon policies. Not likely - they have no better ideas, and won't even focus on the issue in the first two years. However, the "if" above is a very big one...

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it make security and tax payer sense to have the pit production at Pantex instead of at LANL?

Anonymous said...

"Doesn't it make security and tax payer sense to have the pit production at Pantex instead of at LANL?"

Maybe at some point in the future, but not for the rest of my career. Given the Congressional budget cycle, the NNSA facility design and construction process, and the nuclear facility startup process, it would take a minimum of 10 years to build the required capability at Pantex and get it operational. So for now, the only real choice would be to continue to pump resources into TA-55.

Anonymous said...

No one can afford to build the Pu chemistry, analysis, and processing facilities at Pantex that currently exist at LANL, and no Pu chemists or metallurgists will want to move to Amarillo. Won't work.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it make security and tax payer sense to have the pit production at Pantex instead of at LANL?

I thought this was a done deal. Haven't they done this job before and it cost less to upgrade their facility than to build a new one?

Anonymous said...

The creation of the NNSA was the worst thing that could have happened to the physics labs (LLNL and LANL) - now known as Lawrence Livermore NNSA Laboratory and Los Alamos NNSA Laboratory. The labs, after the contract bidding/RFP from hell - are firmly in the clutches of NNSA, with its single concern of nuclear weapons. NNSA does not care about WFO or basic science in the national interest, it only cares about one thing; nuclear weapons. Just as the owner of the Chicago Cubs doesn't care about the welfare and health of the Chicago Bears. In NNSA' collective mind, if it doesn't directly involve or contribute to NNSA's bottomline, what in heavens name is it doing at an NNSA site (including its labs). So NNSA is going to shrink, dramatically it looks like, as the county shrinks the nuclear weapons arsenal - even if its capability remains the same in the aggregate with RRW1 &2.... and this means NNSA labs are going to shrink too, while true national labs (under the Office of Science) are maintaining their size and in some cases growing. Instead of the NNSA labs being able to shrink the NNSA footprint within the labs, NNSA is forcing the lab's executives to (and very is content to see them) shrink the lab's footprint (workforce and scientific work), even if it kills the the labs. If weapons pit/part production goes to Pantex, do you think NNSA would care if LANL was only 1000 employees in size, as long as it meets NNSA's reduced nuclear weapons design related needs.

Congress should move the labs out of NNSA and back under the DOE Office of Science, and let NNSA contract with them to carryout NNSA's weapons science work.

Anonymous said...

Move the labs to DOE Office of Science???

Dude, you are really deluded. This mess started because the labs were not focused enough on weapons and security for Congress' taste.

Anonymous said...

Congress should move the labs out of NNSA and back under the DOE Office of Science,

The NNSA labs NEVER WERE under the
DOE Office of Science. Before the
creation of the NNSA; the labs were
under the Office of Defense Programs;
NOT the Office of Science.

Of course the Office of Science funds
some work at the NNSA labs; but the
labs that fall under the Office of
Science are Ames, ANL, BNL, FNAL,

Before the creation of NNSA, the Office
of Defense Programs managed LANL, LLNL,
and SNL.

Anonymous said...

"back under the DOE Office of Science" only works if Domenici is in place to funnel monies to the labs. Imagine open competition for funding while considering the FTE costs and the LANL "productivity!"

Anonymous said...

Weapons work (design, stockpile, etc.) is going to be scaled back by future budgets. Unfortunately, we'll see no corresponding growth in LANL's project diversity because neither NNSA or LANS really wants to allow it here. Therefore, you're about to see large cutbacks in LDRD, basic science, Foreign Nationals working at LANL, WFO projects, etc.

The cost structure at LANL also favors doing most of the DOE Office of Science work at non-weapon labs, so don't expect Office of Science to funnel more funding into LANL. It's not cost effective, as our FTE rates keep climbing to insane new highs with each passing year.

When this fiasco is all over in about 2 or 3 years, LANL will have lost the 30% of staff that NNSA wants kicked out the front gate. Many staff members are now either getting ready to bail or will soon be RIF'ed due to LANL's lack of funding.

To help accelerate the staff losses even further, expect LANS to soon begin cutting back benefits of all types, capping most salaries, and requiring significant salary contributions (i.e., around 5% to 8%) to help bolster the faltering TCP1 pension. Significant cut backs to the TCP2 401k match are already in the works for next year.

It's going to be tons of fun working at the beaten down NNSA labs!

Anonymous said...

Anyone remember the Atomic Energy Commission? When I arrived in 1977 it was already ERDA, but all the government vehicles still said AEC on the side. There was significant work funded here by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (OBES), as well as Fusion Energy, and of course, WFO. The problem today isn't structural (i.e., the existence of NNSA); it is the shortsightedness of NNSA and DOE leadership, as well as Congress, as they all play political gotcha. Sickening...

Anonymous said...

FTE costs at Office of Science laboratories are 1/2 to 2/3rds what LANL is now. AND, after the RIF, LANL will be much worse. I doubt that the Office of Science wants anything at all to do with us..

Anonymous said...

"I thought this was a done deal. Haven't they done this job before and it cost less to upgrade their facility than to build a new one?"

Pantex has never done pit production work of any kind - all they do (pretty much) is put parts together and take parts apart.

Much different work using much different facilities.

Anonymous said...

"Anyone remember the Atomic Energy Commission?"

Well, kind of, I think. Of course my memory is quickly fading in direct proportion to my reliance on double-dipping. Yes, I'm one of the old guys who ought to be (and probably will be) booted out the door. But I'm willing to be kicked around and trodden on for a while longer, collecting my 401(k) matches, as the extended Continuing Resolution just bought me a little more time to feed at the trough.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a done deal. Haven't
they done this job before and it cost less
to upgrade their facility than to build a
new one?

NOPE - they didn't do this before.

The former pit manufacturing facility
used to be Rocky Flats in Colorado.
The government shutdown Rocky Flats in
1988; and its functionality has NEVER
since been replaced.

Nope; the old facility can't be upgraded
because it has since been DEMOLISHED.

Anonymous said...

"Nope; the old facility can't be upgraded
because it has since been DEMOLISHED."

I got a good view of the "new" Rocky Flats after taking off from DIA earlier this year (a big, open area devoid of structures of any kind - except maybe the fencing to keep folks out). Just an open field between Denver and Boulder.

BTW, the way things are going at LANL these days, there will be a lot of DEMOLITION going on in the not-too-distant future, as old facilities are emptied, decommissioned, and reduced to rubble. And don't forget, Bechtel can make a lot of money off this too, as witnessed at the NTS during the term of their contract. The upside is there may be a lot of jobs if you've got experience in this field - most likely the majority of this work will be performed by subcontractors.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe at some point in the future, but not for the rest of my career. Given the Congressional budget cycle, the NNSA facility design and construction process, and the nuclear facility startup process, it would take a minimum of 10 years to build the required capability at Pantex and get it operational. So for now, the only real choice would be to continue to pump resources into TA-55."

Wording taken directly from the NNSA FY 2008 Budget Request:

"Assuming approval of mission need, conceptual design of the CPC will begin in FY 2008 using operating funds. A site would be selected the end of FY 2008 according to the current Complex 2030 NEPA process schedule. The funding for the CPC would support facility conceptual design, provide funding for long-lead production technology development, and ensure sufficient funding for adequate project management oversight in the early Future Year Nuclear Security Plan (FYNSP) period. Later in the FYNSP period, funding will focus on facility design and support site preparation actions. The facility is scheduled to be fully operational in 2022, with construction essentially complete by 2020.

This represents a very aggressive schedule for a facility of this magnitude. Additional FYNSP funding allows for earlier completion and provides necessary resources for rigorous evaluation of facility design and cost estimates. This will greatly increase the likelihood of meeting the 2022 date as well as minimizing the possibility of schedule slips or cost overruns."

And this:

"The Pit Manufacturing subprogram provides limited quantities of W88 pits that meet all quality requirements for entry into the stockpile, and maintains an interim pit
manufacturing capability at existing LANL facilities, and will expand the capacity to the extent practical."

So it looks like TA-55 will be in full swing, with an increasing workload, through at least 2022 - can you say job security?

Anonymous said...

"So it looks like TA-55 will be in full swing, with an increasing workload, through at least 2022 - can you say job security?" (12:56 PM)

Yes, you are right. The NNSA presentation on Thursday also strongly affirmed that the interim solution will be to have a pit factory at LANL. My guess is that it will probably become the long term solution, as well. Congress wants to do this on the cheap, so I don't expect to see any super-duper facility built out at NTS by 2022.

Pit production is going to be the *only* stable job area at LANL over the next few years. It may become the only thing that helps keep the front gates open.