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Transformer: LANL to see reduction in nuclear operations

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By Roger Snodgrass

Warning that the nuclear weapons complex was at a crossroads in its transformation process, the nation’s nuclear weapons chief announced the latest version of a reconfiguration plan.“We cannot afford the status quo,” said Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) during a press conference in Washington Tuesday. “The current path is not sustainable.”The plan designates Los Alamos National Laboratory as its preferred location for producing as many as 80 pits per year and proposes a 20 percent staff reduction “over the next decade or so.”The jobs, along with a 50-percent reduction of the nuclear operations footprint and a 20-percent reduction of the total building footprint, would follow from a consolidation of nuclear materials and more efficient operations throughout the NNSA.D’Agostino said jobs in the nuclear weapons mission would decline through attrition and reassignment to other missions, including non-proliferation, incident response, counterterrorism and support of the intelligence community.The reworked blueprint is now called “Complex Transformation” and will be described in full in a draft environmental impact statement to be released next month for a 90-day comment period and discussed in 12 public meetings around the nation in February and March.Four of those meetings will be held in New Mexico, including one in Los Alamos March 13.D’Agostino said the former name, “Complex 2030” had been dropped, because, “We realized we can achieve many of the changes in the next decade,” rather than the 20-plus years sketched out in the last scenario released in October 2006.Under the plan, both Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories would be designated host sites for advanced supercomputing platforms.LLNL would feature the National Ignition Facility (NIF) as a “science magnet,” while LANL’s “science magnet” designation was given to its newly conceived materials research facility, the Matter-Radiation Interaction in Extremes (MaRIE).“The preferred alternative selection confirms that Los Alamos is first and foremost a science R&D laboratory,” said LANL Director Michael Anastasio.The new roadmap makes do without the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, all but eliminated in current appropriations legislation.The RRW program – proposing replacement warheads for existing stockpile weapons, which would be more reliable and easier to manufacture – was considered the enabler for transforming the complex until now.D’Agostino said he still saw an important role to play for RRW but it was not necessary at this point.“This is not about RRW, but about making sure our nuclear weapons infrastructure is properly sized,” he said.The plan calls for closing 600 buildings at weapons sites, closing two major testing sites by 2015 and reducing floor space by one-third, from 35 million to 26 million square feet.U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said in a prepared statement, “Fundamentally, this plan is not radical, but an affirmation of the direction the labs have been moving in recent years. I believe the D’Agostino plan is responsible and sets a course for maintaining core competencies in nuclear weapons, and modernizing the complex to maximize national security and scientific missions.”Domenici said the challenge was whether Congress would support the trend in a “smart, well thought out manner.”He encouraged the continued pursuit of “advanced weapons designs that are more reliable, more secure and less expensive to maintain.”Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the proposed job cuts did not mean that the New Mexico labs would become less important.“Our labs are a tremendous brain trust that we will continue to tap into to meet a variety of challenges in other defense and energy missions,” he said. “I will be working very hard with the entire delegation to identify and support new missions that will keep the scientists and engineers at our labs very busy for years to come.”Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said NNSA’s announcement confirms facts that have been evident – “that LANL must adapt to a changing reality.”“The recent layoffs are directly linked to this reality of a changing nuclear weapons complex and the new corporate structure at the lab, not to this or next year's federal budget, which has been stabilized,” he said.E-mailed reactions by two New Mexico nuclear watchdogs were quoted in the national press.Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico objected to NNSA’s plan to raise the level of production at LANL from 20 pits per year to 80.“NASA should play by the rule that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” he said. “We simply don’t need new expensive, dangerous and internationally provocative pit production.”Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said the plan was an improvement.“I would say it is halfway there,” he said.While approving the downsizing of the complex, Mello added, “It’s ‘more renewal’ than ‘transformation.’ Too many options and redundancies are retained.”