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NNSA, labs need to mend fences

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Research findings: Agency needs to reduce administrative burdens and rebalance relationships

By The Staff

Scientists and engineers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) three national security laboratories appear committed to their work and core mission of maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, but according to a new National Research Council  report, a “broken relationship” between NNSA and the labs threatens to erode the quality of the scientific research and engineering being conducted there.

The committee that wrote the report said that an intrusive degree of oversight stemming from past security and safety concerns at one of the labs has led to a “breakdown of trust.”

The committee added that the change in management and operations contractors at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore in 2006 and 2007 — while stressful and adding some $100 million annually to each of those laboratories’ overhead — is not the root cause of the problem.

“While we are still reviewing the report, NNSA is an organization that has continuously improved the way we do business, and we’re going to keep looking for ways to operate more efficiently, maintain effective oversight, and work as one NNSA. We’re proud of our leadership in developing a new vision for interagency strategic cooperation, and we are pleased to see the Academy’s endorsement of this significant initiative,” NNSA spokesperson Josh McConaha said in a statement.

“We also continue to view laboratory-directed research and development as an essential scientific component of a laboratory’s ability to recruit and retain top scientists and engineers, shape the future of nuclear security, and to seed innovation in critical national security areas. We are already actively working to reshape the relationship between the laboratories, sites and headquarters; engage in efforts to examine and reduce the number of budget reporting categories; enact a series of management reforms intended to both improve the way we do business and increase the efficiency of our operations; and maintain a safe, secure, and responsible security posture at our sites.”

LANL also released a statement concerning the report this morning.

“The report, of course, has just been published, but we will  carefully consider all that the panel offers in the way of observations, constructive criticism, and recommendations. That said, Los Alamos has always been managed under a contract, and this report is about how the contract has changed and the effect of those changes on the laboratory.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is why we’re here. Our mission is to support national security, and that’s what we’re doing‹to good effect. Our world-class workforce continues to deliver for the nation the highest-quality science, technology, and engineering.

“Together, NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office and LANL have been proactively reforming our approach to governance. We’ve been working to build greater trust and mutual respect‹and, at the same time, figuring out practical ways to reduce friction and boost productivity.”

Congress asked the Research Council to review the quality of scientific research and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL). The review is being carried out in two phases, and this first report focuses on how management of the laboratories affects the quality of their science and engineering.

LANL and LLNL were managed solely by the University of California for many decades, but in 2004 Congress ordered that the contract for managing the two labs be re-opened to competitive bidding. As a result, two independent LLCs that include both the University of California and Bechtel Corp. were awarded contracts. SNL has been managed since 1993 by the Sandia Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Some laboratory staff had raised concerns that the introduction of a private company into the management of LANL and LLNL might negatively affect worker morale or that management may not act in the public interest. However, the Research Council committee said staff members continue to show a strong commitment to their work, and the laboratory directors’ main objective remains to manage the labs in the public interest.

The quality of science and engineering work at the laboratories depends on the ability of the labs to attract and retain high-quality scientists and engineers and not impede their performance, the committee emphasized. It applauded the broadening of the laboratory missions into non-nuclear areas and work for other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, because non-nuclear areas of research potentially increase the laboratories’ appeal to top-quality scientists and engineers while also serving important national security missions. The committee recommended that Congress, while still recognizing that maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile remains the labs’ core mission, endorse and support their evolving national security mission.

The “breakdown of trust” between NNSA and the labs is most prominent at LANL, where past failures in safety and security attracted much national attention, but the breakdown is also felt clearly at the other labs, leading to an aversion to risk and a potential bias against experimental work, the committee found. It said a perception exists among staff and managers that NNSA is micromanaging the labs, and the report cites a case where NNSA headquarters tried to overrule a laboratory’s best scientific judgment about how to carry out a scientific task.

Safety and security systems at the laboratories have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention, the committee found. It said that an understanding is needed to rebalance the relationship and rebuild trust between NNSA and lab management.  The committee also recommended that NNSA reduce reporting and administrative burdens on the laboratories’ leadership and free them to establish strategic science and engineering direction at the laboratories.   

For more information, visit national-academies.org.