Lab asks for community support

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By Roger Snodgrass

Get ready for transformation week: not the moment when everything changes in the nuclear weapons complex, but a critical week when sides line up and offer varying, and sometimes emotional, accounts about what should or should be done or not in the next decade.

Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted the first of two bus tours Wednesday, looking to explain a program of consolidation outlined in a Department of Energy environmental statement – and hopefully gather support. eeA small group of community leaders were taken behind the fence to four nuclear facilities under discussion in next week’s public hearings about transforming the weapon’s complex, They caught a glimpse and heard from top officials about what the lab sees as its most essential needs and its greatest prospects for the future. Another group is scheduled to take the tour on Friday.ee

The visitors included business and educational leaders and heads of community organizations. They stopped by the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility, timetabled to close under the new plan; the radiation laboratory building under construction as part of the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, the subject of a two-year budget disagreement between the House and the Senate in Congress; the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrotest Facility (DARHT), the newest addition to the laboratory’s major stockpile stewardship facilities, intended to at least partially substitute for nuclear testing; and the future home of the Roadrunner, widely expected to be the next champion supercomputer of the world.

Talking points

At each venue the guests were given a piece of the future vision for the laboratory under the transformation plan now in play from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the nuclear weapons agency that supervises the nuclear weapons complex for the Department of Energy.eeThe laboratory’s message contradicted points raised at a press conference and workshops in Santa Fe over the weekend, where opponents of the government’s current plans made their preparations.

One of the most persistent themes raised by the growing coalition of antinuclear, disarmament, religious and environmental critics, rejects spending large amounts of money on reviving nuclear weapons production. Last year, Los Alamos delivered for the first time, 10 newly made and certified plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons.

At a time when the government is trying to reduce its excess inventory of nuclear warheads and deflate proliferation activities around the world, critics argue at the local, as well as the national level, this is not the time to make significant new investments in bomb-making infrastructure.

Capability-based deterrence

Lab officials said Wednesday that the new investments were necessary to maintain the capacity to make nuclear pits and that the scientific and technical capability itself was a deterrent to nuclear threats.eeDuring an early morning presentation that summarized the message for the day, laboratory director Michael Anastasio said the current thinking about the nuclear complex and the nuclear weapons stockpile was indeed about how to shrink the numbers.

But, he asked, “How can you feel confident that your deterrent is viable?”eeYou can feel confident, he answered, if your capability allows you to fix problems quickly. If the defense department feels the need “to get back into a Cold War,” he said, “We can turn on a dime.”

As far as expanding production, he said, the capability to produce 50-80 pits per year was simply intended to be a capability. ee“There is not plan to make that many and no requirement to make that many,” said Anastasio. “This year we’ll make six.”eeThe capability itself was a deterrent to adversaries, he added, and it’s important to reassure allies at the same time that they don’t need to get into the nuclear weapons business themselves.

Questions and answers

Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation asked what the process of the public meetings was leading toward.eeGlen Mara, the lab’s nuclear weapon’s chief, said the process would result in a formal Record of Decision that was expected before the end of the year.

That document would contain a final declaration about which of the alternatives under discussion had been approved under the environmental evaluation.

Bill Enloe, chairman and CEO of the Los Alamos National Bank, asked about LANL’s role in non-proliferation and nuclear energy, opening up the question of the non-weapons work at the laboratory.eeAnastasio said the weapons work envisioned by the National Nuclear Security Administration transformation plan maintains a constant foundation at LANL that underpins the other scientific programs.

He mentioned the new Roadrunner supercomputer, made possible by its importance in weapons work, but also available for working on questions about the origin of the universe or modeling a nuclear reactor.ee

“We need your help,” said Glenn Mara, as he invited the group to get to know the laboratory and to let the federal authorities know how they think the Los Alamos laboratory project is coming along. eeIn recent years of hearings, he noted, opponents have outnumbered proponents by 10 to one in similar meetings.

Mara said the leadership tours were the beginning of a new public communication effort to promote “much more transparency,” and greater public outreach, during this time “of unprecedented change.”eeHe said the federal debate over the budget, a cliffhanger last year that was resolved only at the last minute, and the sweeping political shifts in store this year for New Mexico’s political roster, demanded closer ties between the laboratory and its community.

At the end of the tour, Joe Martz, who is leading the communication effort, told the group, “Your opinion is your own. We only encourage you to vote.”

LANL employs 11,800 people, according to a fact sheet distributed to the group, with a workforce that earns salaries and benefits amounting to $1.15 billion a year. In 2006, LANL purchased goods and services worth $495 million in New Mexico.