Off and On: Layoffs at nuke lab stir fears of a brain drain

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By Ralph Damiani

There was a very interesting story by the Associated Press out of California this past week.

It dealt with fears of an irreplaceable loss of brain power as the result of layoffs at the nation’s top nuclear weapons design lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It seems the lab has laid off hundreds of workers, raising concerns about a brain drain.

Because of budget cuts and higher costs, Lawrence Livermore laid off 440 employees May 22-23. Over the past two-plus years, attrition and layoffs have reduced the work force by about 1,800.

According to a list obtained by the Associated Press, about 60 of the recently laid-off workers were engineers, around 30 were physicists and about 15 were chemists. Some, but not all, were involved in nuclear weapons work or nonproliferation efforts, and all had put in at least 20 years at the lab.

Any of this sound familiar?

Some lawmakers and others said they fear the loss of important institutional knowledge about designing warheads and detecting whether other countries are going nuclear.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the layoffs at Lawrence Livermore and two other big U.S. weapons labs represent “a national security danger point.” These unemployed experts might take their skills overseas, Feinstein said.

Is Congress finally waking up to what we here in Los Alamos have been saying for years? We need these people. We need these programs.

Feinstein is quoted as saying, “The fact is, these are all people who are human, they have homes, they have families, they have educations to pay for. And I very much worry where they go for their next job.”

Hello – does this not apply to Los Alamos and Sandia?

Los Alamos has had to cut its work force last year by about 550 through retirements and attrition, and Sandia plans to shed dozens of workers.

Are not these New Mexico scientists and such as good as the folks in California? Do they also not have homes, do they not have families, etc.?

So what is going on?

The possibility of these people going to work for less desirable operations is on the mind of the nation’s top nuclear weapons official, National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D’Agostino.

“Always in a situation where people leave under less-than-ideal circumstances, we worry about that, and it’s something I assure you we’re looking at closely,” D’Agostino said. “I’m always concerned about the counterintelligence part of our mission, and we have an active program to go make sure we understand where we’re vulnerable and where we’re not.”

But we think those fears are unfounded.

Ken Sale, a physicist laid off from Lawrence Livermore May 23, told the AP that taking his knowledge of nuclear weapons overseas would be unthinkable, and that he knows of no laid-off colleague who would even consider it.

Lawmakers and others have expressed concern that wave after wave of work force reductions will diminish the lab’s expertise. D’Agostino said he could not guarantee that national security would not be harmed.

Again, a point that has been made and made for Los Alamos – clearly the leader in this field.

The layoffs have reduced the lab’s roster of experts with invaluable experience they had gleaned from taking part in actual nuclear tests and related work.

Again, hello – this is Los Alamos all over.

Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, whose district includes part of the lab, said the stakes are especially high as the United States tries to divine through science what other countries are doing inside their weapons programs.

“We need to be able to understand what the clues are about other countries such as Iran and North Korea and other countries that are potential nuclear weapons developers,” he said. “Without those scientists that have been involved in that field for years, for decades, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to know what’s going on elsewhere in the world.”

We hope Congress wakes up and sees this as a real issue and that Los Alamos is a key player in this effort.

We survived!

I’m not sure if we are lucky or unlucky that the Municipal Building is still standing right now.

See, we were told that one of the main reasons the building was unsafe is that an earthquake could take it down. Well, we were lucky this week.

A 3.7 magnitude temblor rattled portions of north central New Mexico, with the center about 29 miles south-southeast of Chama.

Too bad the building didn’t fall; just think of all the money we’d have saved in tearing it down!

E-mail Ralph at ralph@lamonitor.com.