Energy Secretary sees future for security labs

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By Roger Snodgrass

ALBUQUERQUE – The primary role of Los Alamos and the other nuclear weapons labs remains as stewards of the nuclear stockpile, “as long as other countries continue to have nuclear weapons.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu had answers for some of the uncertainties about the future of the nuclear weapons complex. But those issues weren’t topmost on his mind, and he probably didn’t lay them to rest.

During his trip to New Mexico this week, Chu reaffirmed the nuclear security mission as the main job of the weapons laboratories.

As for talk about the National Nuclear Security Administration slipping away from the energy department and reappearing under the Department of Defense, Chu is not a party to that trial balloon, which seems to have originated in the Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “What is vital is that national security needs have to be tied to a strong scientific foundation.”

The connection is all the more important now that President Obama has called for a nuclear free world and vowed to press again for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, he said. The fact of fewer weapons means more is riding on each of them. Furthermore, confidence in the residual stockpile requires increased scientific validation in order to reduce the need to test.

What about Los Alamos’ $2 billion-plus Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, whose major component, the Nuclear Facility awaits another allocation for next year?

“We’re in the process of a Nuclear Posture Review,” Chu said, linking the decision to an assessment due by the end of the year of the nation’s nuclear weapons needs five-to-10 years into the future. The review is meant to clarify U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and strategy for the near term, and the lack of a coordinated picture has frustrated appropriators and policy makers already this year. According to a congressional mandate, “The secretary (of defense) shall conduct the review in consultation with the secretary of energy and the secretary of state.”

“I’m looking forward to putting in my input,” Chu said.

In a portion of his talk to an overflow crowd of more than 500 employees at Sandia National Laboratories, Chu’s primary message was that the country needed breakthrough solutions to national energy problems to ward off climate change and provide the basis for future prosperity.

Broad hints of new expectations from the complex could be drawn from Chu’s optimistic sense of the history of science and technology and his own work as director of Berkeley National Laboratory.

He implied changing priorities at the energy department given an urgent necessity to confront the climate crisis.

With slides and graphs and gallows humor about the fate of the Titanic, he pronounced his agreement with the scientific consensus on man-made global warming.

“Here we are on a very big boat, like the Titanic,” he said. “And a lot of people see an iceberg ahead.”

His point was that we are already going to take a hit. If we do something now, we might limit it to a glancing blow. So it’s time to get to work on some “bold new ideas.”

As hopeful examples, he mentioned scientific discoveries that made possible the green revolution in the late 1960s and answered population doomsday scenarios at the time.

The model he recommends has to do with “team science,” like the aggregation of international genius under a brilliant scientist that made possible the harnessing of the atom at Los Alamos, or like Bell Labs where he worked in his early career and where the transistor was invented that made possible the electronic revolution.

Just before he was named energy secretary, Chu helped create an institutional model that he has in mind, the Joint BioEnergy Institute with partners including Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national labs, along with business and academia.

JBEI is one of three centers funded by the Department of Energy to unlock the energy available from plants. Among other projects, the institute is engineering new fuel-generating organisms and improved fuel plants.

Chu said he hoped to fund the best proposals, creating new “lablets” and “steeples of excellence” that would lift science and research at the national laboratories to a different plane.