Community leaders share a big day at the lab

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By Roger Snodgrass

Wednesday was a red-letter day for Los Alamos National Laboratory, a favorable occasion for community leaders to visit for a briefing and a rare tour behind the security perimeter.

“Good news,” Deputy Laboratory Director Jan Van Prooyen called it as he began a status report on the laboratory.

Across the Atlantic Wednesday morning, after a meeting in Dresden, Germany, the lab’s Roadrunner computer was named top of the heap, “king of the (computer) world” – the pacesetter for the new petaflop generation of supercomputing.

Petaflop refers to a quadrillion, a thousand trillion, or a million billion operations per second, twice the speed of the previous world champ at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Van Prooyen and Don Winchell, the local manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration, gave high-level overviews of current work and future prospects for the laboratory.

Van Prooyen emphasized stockpile stewardship as the lab’s dominant mission, but pointed out that the facilities had a wider set of uses.

“These are sophisticated tools capable of supporting other national priorities,” he said, including energy security, nuclear energy, nonproliferation, modeling and greater efficiency in energy storage.

The lab’s $2.2 billion dollar budget last year would remain “about the same,” and “maybe a little bit higher,” he said. “There will be changes but we don’t know what they will be.”

He saw a good chance of a budget for next year that would be based on a continuing resolution “that would last longer than in recent years.”

Over the past five years, with at least 10 percent inflation and new costs associated with the revised laboratory management contract, Van Prooyen said the budget had lost about $300 million in buying power.

Laboratory employment, now at about 11,200 people, was down about 2,300 people over the last two-and-a-half years, he said, and down about 700 for the current fiscal year.

Among the current challenges, he spoke of uncertainties in “the nuclear policy direction,” “the squeeze on science,” “recapitalization of the infrastructure” and “maintaining the people pipeline” of technical expertise at the laboratory.

Speaking to an audience of community leaders from throughout the northern New Mexico region, he also referred to the importance of developing “confidence and trust of our neighbors.”

“I’m glad we’re here and we’re going to be here for awhile. Winchell said, as he discussed NNSA’s current priorities.

He said about $200 million in construction would be spent this year, a figure that would increase over the next 10 years. He listed LANL’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility as one of three $2-billion projects under way in the complex, which would be phasing in during the decade.

After the briefing, most of the community leaders took advantage of one of the facility tours offered by the lab, including groups that went to the CMRR construction site, the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center and the radioactive waste operations areas.

Visitors to the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) got to see a honeycomb of individual laboratories where new scientific frontiers are under scrutiny at the scale of one-billionth of a meter.

They were introduced to sophisticated laser and optical devices that examine molecular structures and create highly specialized materials, including nanotubes, nanowires, nanodots and nanostars. Scientists also work on new ways to visualize the information that they gather using three-dimensional computerized models.

Director Toni Taylor greeted the visitors to LANL’s gateway facility, which is sponsored by DOE for basic energy science by a variety of researchers She explained its relationship to the core CINT facility at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

Computer simulation and modeling was the main subject of a visit to the Nicholas Metropolis Center supercomputer facility, where the lab’s now-famous Roadrunner computer will be housed.

The supercomputer speed record was broken at 3:30 a.m. on a memorable Memorial Day, May 26. The Roadrunner, built by IBM and featuring souped-up Sony PlayStation chips, gets its name from the New Mexico state bird, a ground-hugging speed demon.

The ranking was assigned by the international Top500 organization that tracks the world supercomputing hierarchy as a single system, and was expected. The Top500’s new list, available hot off the web to the community leaders as they browsed a poster session in the Oppenheimer Study Center also showed the Roadrunner as the most energy efficient supercomputer.