LANL: Re-visioning its mission

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By Roger Snodgrass

While the director was in Washington talking about some new directions at the nuclear weapons labs Wednesday, Los Alamos National Laboratory managers were engaged in a plenary workshop developing an institutional strategy on energy security.

Coincidentally timed, the two events were nevertheless related. Both represented steps into a future that is becoming increasingly defined by smaller budgets for nuclear weapons.

LANL Director Michael Anastasio participated in a press conference in Washington, D.C., led by Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Also in the group were Thomas Hunter of Sandia National Laboratories, George H. Miller at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Stephen Younger, president and general manager of the company that operates the Nevada Test Site.

The group availability reintroduced NNSA’s “future vision” initiative signed with the commitment last month of Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. The idea is to compensate for the anticipated reductions in the core nuclear weapons missions that have predominated at the four facilities, pivoting somewhat toward other sponsors to cover a broader spectrum of national security missions.

“The country has for many decades invested in the nuclear program as something important to do,” D’Agostino said. “As the stockpile size comes down, we have to recognize those warheads are incredibly important to our deterrent, because we are reliant on fewer weapons.”

That basic responsibility would remain important into the future, he said, “but we see a shift.”

The administrator and the heads of the weapons facilities described the shift as establishing longer-term relations, involving ongoing capabilities and infrastructure with other federal departments, for what are now called “work for others” assignments.

These include other relationships at the Department of Defense and perhaps more substantial projects with the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies like the FBI.

“That’s the big change,” D’Agostino said. “We’ve been evolving that way, but now we want to make sure everybody knows.”

During the press conference, he implied that at least one such partnership was in negotiations and would be announced shortly.

D’Agostino called upon each of the directors to talk about current activities at their respective laboratories that were representative of the future directions.

Anastasio said LANL’s concern was that the demands for transformation and shrinking the complex should not squeeze out the nation’s investment in security science.

One project he emphasized was Angel Fire, a project with the Air Force Research Laboratory for a “wide field of view persistent surveillance aerial collection asset,” for the Marine Corps in Iraq.

It is described in an Air Force document as advanced imaging system mated to an unmanned aircraft that enables constant monitoring with archiving capability that can be controlled by an analyst or viewer and rewound for forensic examination.

Meanwhile, LANL’s Energy Security Center launched Energy Days II, an internal brainstorming session that was heavily attended Wednesday, said Duncan McBranch, deputy principal associate director for Science, Technology and Engineering.

Along with information science and technology, as well as biosecurity, the energy security center is one of the three new incubators the lab has set up to develop new ideas and themes.

For energy, the main theme areas include sustainable nuclear energy, the nexus between climate and infrastructure and a suite of problems and opportunities related to energy storage.

“This is a great set of themes for the lab,” McBranch said of the energy security area. “It is so broad and distributed at the lab, there is an element in nearly every line organization.”