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SANTA FE – State lawmakers got an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the outlook at Los Alamos National Laboratory as they prepared for a 60-day legislative session just around the corner.
The LANL oversight committee heard an upbeat report from lab Director Michael Anastasio Friday and quizzed him for any clues about what the economic future might look like for northern New Mexico.
Anastasio led with the news of the week, that DOE’s annual performance evaluation was not only positive and trending upward for the laboratory, but had also added an additional year to the management company’s contract.
“I’m very pleased that they gave us a very good overall report card, especially for our missions, programs and science,” Anastasio said, who also serves as president of Los Alamos National Security, the partnership that manages the laboratory.
“It’s even more important that they added an additional year to our contract,” he said.
The evaluation awarded 81 percent of the available at-risk fee, or 88 percent of the total fee available, increasing the company’s earnings by a few million dollars over last year. A one-year extension on the contract represents tens of millions of dollars in additional fee, plus a bonus year in charge of a national laboratory whose budget has been holding at about $2.2 billion a year.
Thanks to the continuing resolution reached on the budget this fall, the laboratory will sustain its budget at no worse than a flat level into early March.
Terry Wallace, who heads the laboratory’s science and engineering efforts gave a glimpse of a growth trend in the mission area the laboratory calls Energy Security and Energy Challenges. This “new mission” has gone from a $190-million portion of the lab’s budget in 2006 to $254 million in 2008.
“That’s a quarter of a billion dollars,” Wallace said, “plus an additional $105 million of the laboratory’s research and development money on top of that.”
He informed the legislators of a demonstration coming up next week related to a laboratory technology called “MagViz,” that aims to save air travelers from inconvenient security inspections by characterizing carry-on liquids. Other new technologies mentioned included an ultra-sound imaging instrument for breast cancer testing and superconducting solutions to the fragile electric power transmission system.
Procurement and education
Kevin Chalmers responded to one of the legislators’ regular concerns, which has to do with how many subcontract dollars are going to New Mexico businesses and especially businesses in their respective districts.
Procurement of goods and services slid downward with the LANS contract two years ago, at least partly because of new expenses like gross receipts taxes, award fees and pension costs.
“We had a reduction in spending when we got here,” Chalmers said, who is the division leader for acquisition services, “and it’s still going down.”
From $977 million in 2005, that figure has declined to a projected $700 million for next year. Of total procurements, state contractors captured 54 percent in 2008 and most of that (45 percent of total procurements) went to Northern New Mexico.
At the last oversight hearing, legislators had asked for a tutorial on what it might take to extend the lab-sponsored Math and Science Academy to other districts in the state.
Program Director Dave Foster showed them a two-step plan for how a school district could begin with an observational phase for about $13,500, and then advance to an implementation phase that would cost about $162,000 for 10 teachers in a three-year program.
Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, chaired the meeting, which is the last meeting scheduled for the interim committee composed of members from both houses of the state legislature.
Lab performance ratings trend up
After his testimony LANL Director Michael Anastasio was asked for his thoughts on what he called “the good report” card from the National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the nuclear complex for the Department of Energy.
“The key to me is that if we are effective and successful at the laboratory, we’ll do well,” Anastasio said, “We’re not focused only and specifically on our evaluation, which is a reflection of the government focus.”
He considered security to be one of the most noteworthy areas of improvement.
“That’s true especially in physical security,” he said. “But also in cyber security which must continue to improve, because it is such a dynamic area and a national challenge as well.”
He said the evaluation also reflected some continuing concerns about the lab’s project management, a situation he attributed to having to operate in facilities at the same time as the projects are going on.
Roger Snyder, deputy Los Alamos site office manager for NNSA and one of the key people involved in the evaluation, agreed, “”It’s always more complicated to repair the project while it is in motion.”
He said the oversight of the laboratory continues to be from the perspective of “a demanding customer.”
In this report, he said, the overall conclusion was that “change has taken hold” and the “initiative and momentum are going in the right direction.”
He said two-and-a-half-years ago, there was broad community concern and concerns nationwide about the laboratory and about what might happen with a for-profit manager coming in to manage a nuclear weapons laboratory.
“We’ve calmed the waters,” he said noting the lack of a Quintana-like incident, referring to the so-called thumb-drive incident that happened in 2006, as well as the laboratory’s handling of budget perturbations.
“They managed a workforce restructuring without claims of bias,” he said. “They haven’t been sued. The safety record has never been better.”
A number of positives and negatives were noted in the report section on Institutional Management Excellence, which was a subjective evaluation category, worth a total of a little more than $10 million. The category got an 80 percent grade and was awarded a little more than $8 million.
Among positives was improved relationship with the Environment Department, high activity drum shipments to the Waste Isolation Project in Carlsbad and “Overall mission achievement, including Roadrunner.”
the world’s fastest high performance computer).
Negatives included problems and responses at the Radioactive Waste Treatment Facility, and difficulties with preparing, planning and reviewing startup of new operations, including an interim radiography operation at the Plutonium Facility and a drum venting process at the hazardous waste repository at Area G.