Mar 14, 2008
A large crowd turned out for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s public hearing Wednesday night at the Hilltop House. For the first time in recent memory, top Los Alamos National Laboratory managers and other members of the community made a strong public showing in support of the agency’s current proposal for transforming the nuclear weapons complex.
Toward the end of the evening, LANL plutonium scientist Joe Martz speaking as a private citizen, said he had been attending these meetings for 20 years and called the community support, “unprecedented.”
In a phone call this morning he emphasized the contrast with similar meetings in the past, which he described as “a smattering of activists with general apathy from the community.”
While opponents outnumbered proponents by 10 to one in the last meetings on this topic, the first of the two NNSA meetings in Los Alamos saw more advocates than critics by a five-to-one margin.
The subject of the hearing was a lengthy document that has been in the works since late 2006, when it originally aimed at a long-range consolidation plan known as Complex 2030 and introduced the concept of a newly modified warhead, known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) as the vehicle for bringing about the change.
Something more than a year later, work on the RRW has been virtually halted by Congress, and DOE has found increasing resistance to its budget proposals.
In its current version, the preferred scope of transformation would take place over the next ten years. The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on complex transformation now envisions a somewhat more moderate path for getting there.
As Bob Smolin Deputy Director for Defense Programs in the NNSA described it in an introductory video, the transformation proposal grows out of the president’s Nuclear Policy Review in 2001, which called for changes that would reflect the end of the Cold War, including less reliance on the Cold War weapons and more reliance on capabilities, made more effective by a smaller and highly responsive weapons infrastructure.
As the period of formal testimony began, an audience of perhaps 200 people filled the meeting room. Many members of the community stood in the back. About 35 people spoke in three-minute segments.
Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, spoke first about the lab’s economic importance in the area. She was followed by Lab director Michael Anastasio and Glenn Mara, the head of the lab’s nuclear weapons program, who established many of the other themes of the evening.
Anastasio, encouraged the adoption of the preferred alternative in the NNSA’s study, which calls for upgrading facilities at Los Alamos, including the strong possibility that LANL will be mainly responsible for manufacturing plutonium pits for nuclear weapons well into the future.
Anastasio said the plan would enhance the adaptability of the nuclear weapons complex.
“We will be able to respond to any problems that show up in the stockpile more effectively and thus reduce the stockpile even more,” he said.
He said the preferred alternative “reconfirms for all of us that Los Alamos is a national security science laboratory,” and that the weapons capability could be used to address other national problems, including non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, new forms of alternative energy and climate change.
NNSA’s preferred alternative, he said would ensure a “stable lab and community well into the future.”
The fourth speaker was Ed Grothus, a retired employee from the laboratory, well-known for his antinuclear convictions. Among his impassioned arguments was the calculation that there are eight nuclear warheads on each Trident missile and that 19 submarines each carry 24 missiles, resulting in the ability to destroy 3,648 places on earth the size of New York City.
“There is no reason to destroy one city,” he said. “What would be the reason for doing that?”
He also criticized the lack of science in the nuclear project, noting that the laboratory had one only one Nobel Prize in over 60 years
While the three-minute format for statements precluded discussion, public questions or dialogues, some of the speakers included brief rebuttals in their comments.
Martz, for example shot back to the science criticism with statistics about citations of lab documents in the scientific literature, which he said made LANL “by far the leader.” He said his review indicated that since the laboratory started its “limited manufacturing” of nuclear triggers in 1997, papers on plutonium had doubled.
To criticism by Los Alamos Study Group member Astrid Webster that the NNSA had not responded to previous requests for the agency to “pay attention to the environment,” Martz said his study of the impact statement led him to recommend that the authors “do not fully elucidate the environmental benefits of the transformation.”
One of the few speakers who took a middle ground, Los Alamos County Councilor Ken Milder said he was concerned about the jobs that were going to be lost under the transformation plan. He said the director’s optimism about using nuclear weapons capabilities for other national capabilities were not funded or discussed in the environmental impact statement. He said the socio-economic disruption in the region was not adequately addressed in the plan, although he foresaw the potential for “an upheaval” for families, houses, schools and services.
Todd Heinrichs, a science writer employed at the laboratory also had a slightly different twist. He called for NNSA to take a better look at the contribution that basic science makes to its weapons programs.