Tested lab meets uncertain world

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By Roger Snodgrass

On reflection, Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Michael Anastasio said Thursday there are positive lessons to be gained from his second year at the helm.

“We had a pretty challenging year,” he said, mentioning specifically the budget problems and workforce reductions. “But we did a good job meeting those challenges.”

Anastasio gave a talk to lab employees Thursday morning and made a round of media visits in the afternoon.

As he did on the first anniversary last year, he saw it as a good time to look back and take stock.

In the midst of uncertainty and despite a great deal of anxiety, he said, major things were accomplished.

Not least, of course, was the recently confirmed success of the lab’s new, fastest-in-the-world Roadrunner supercomputer, which broke the petaflop speed barrier last month by performing a million billion operations per second.

“We took a hard problem and showed people we knew how to do it,” Anastasio said.

The 500,000 pounds of the Roadrunner, now at the IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will be packed up and brought back to the laboratory later this summer. Roadrunner’s computing muscle will be applied to climate and biological simulations before settling into its main job of modeling nuclear explosions next year.

The laboratory’s ability to complete work on the second axis of its Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility this year won special praise from headquarters and was even mentioned favorably in the House appropriations committee report adopted Wednesday for reducing the need to resume nuclear testing.

The evolution of the lab’s historic nuclear mission to a broader mix of security challenges has become a more emphatic theme this year. Increasingly, references to climate science, energy research, threat reduction, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism have become staples of laboratory announcements.

Also Thursday, the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration announced a new “consensus” – describing a “future vision” for the national security laboratories.

The statement associated the change to the planned transformation of the nuclear weapons complex and said the complex made up of Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore laboratories, along with the Nevada Test Site,”is not limited to the historic nuclear weapons core mission, but rather is one encompassing the full spectrum of national security interests.”

Without specifically mentioning the new consensus, Anastasio said the laboratory was well positioned to respond to the world’s concerns.

“Let’s go take on these new opportunities because that’s what the nation needs us to do,” he said. “We’re already working those areas. We’re ready to respond.”

Anastasio was in Washington last week, before the key votes in the House appropriations process that once again raised alarms in some quarters.

The lab director said he was concerned about some of the provisions in the House proposal, but that it was a first step in a long process.

He said questions that were raised about the future of nuclear weapons were something the nation needed to work out.

“You would think this conversation would have happened some time ago,” he said.

He noted that halting pit production could “have a big impact on us” after spending so many years developing the capabilities and the workforce.

He said, “If you don’t have the people, you have to start over.”

Since last year’s budget outcome turned out better than it looked in the beginning, he said, there was reason to hope that the same kind of efforts would lead to the same kind of results this year.

The lab is hiring and there are no plans for reductions other than those that occur naturally through attrition.

Meanwhile, the lab’s diversification efforts are already visible, he said, with nearly a third of its $2.2 billion annual budget devoted to broader       security issues, threat reduction, science and technology.