Fried Light - Can the leopard change its spots?

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By Roger Snodgrass

After a visit from the new apostle of environmentalism, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Los Alamos is coming to the end of an interlude of environmental celebrations and events. Now may be as good a time as any to think seriously about how the laboratory is positioned for the country’s revived love affair with the planet earth.

Oddly enough, the case could be made that decades from now Los Alamos National Laboratory will be as well known as a bastion of environmental knowledge and practice as it is both famous and notorious as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

A community assessment team last week, trying to communicate how Los Alamos looks through the eyes of a first-time visitor, reported back that it was time to “soften” the bomb talk and emphasize the science and environmental work.

That might be good advice for the laboratory as well, if it could be heard.

Don’t forget this is a community that has made sustainability one of its goals and has been making progress in almost every environmental category for some time now.

Sustainability is code for appreciating the web of life. Viable economic sustainability for the economic engine of northern New Mexico may depend on appreciating that there is a new crosswind a-blowing.

The lab is half way there in realizing that it needs to broaden its mission, but seems to think diversification means doing the same things in different words.

Meanwhile the community of lab workers as a whole is pretty much converted. They don’t have to fake it.

County solid-waste manager Regina Wheeler is very proud of the statistic that people in Los Alamos recycle 40 percent of their waste, because they are part of a culture that has built up over years.

Tony Tomei, teaching a course on electric vehicles at UNM-LA made the point recently that Los Alamos is in the lead in the whole state, when it comes to low-carbon alternatives for transportation.

For the laboratory on the other hand, the Earth-friendly description would have to be crafted, counter-intuitively, to reverse its image as a punching bag for environmentalists.

The National Nuclear Security Administration gave some substance to the criticism in grading the lab’s environmental performance last year. Saying they were demanding taskmasters, NNSA gave the lab only 61 percent of its available fee for environmental projects and operations, clearly a less than satisfactory grade.

“Environmental operations and related activities continued to be problematic,” the evaluation said tersely.

Responsibility for that is not easy to trace. To some degree, the federal bureaucracy has also dictated the laboratory’s behavior.

All the more reason to get the institutional story straight before Congress decides the laboratory’s priorities are no longer relevant.

A better way to frame the debate is that LANL is now in the midst of an accelerated clean-up program. It has been charged with getting the eco-system back into shape or getting a grip on the damages that have been done, so that no more harm will occur.

As a prerequisite to that work, the laboratory is developing technical expertise in environmental monitoring, surveillance and remediation. To protect the local environment, subtle characterization capabilities have been defined and refined. Modeling and simulation programs, once applied exclusively to nuclear explosions, now calculate migration pathways through an impossibly fractured subterranean geology.

These are great training exercises for cleaning up the planet in general, particularly the heavily contaminated parts. Past mistakes have provided invaluable learning opportunities. With the Earth sinking away into superfund status, a strong remediation portfolio is a ticket to future redemption.

Rather than making cleanup an afterthought, it should be out in front, but only a facet in a much larger and more vibrant sense of awareness. Environmental efforts should be visibly redoubled across the board.

Unfortunately, the lab didn’t seem to have any aces to show Secretary Chu, who was focused on the crisis facing the planet and the urgent need for fast and efficient scientific solutions “before the Titanic sinks.”

He may be using a metaphor, but he is giving pretty urgent directions. The question is, can Los Alamos respond?