Lab came to terms with a tough year

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory survived the threat of a massive budget cut this year from Congress and came out with its funding intact.

In the recession-era sense that a “flat” budget is the new “raise” and definitely better than a cut, not suffering a loss was a notable achievement.

At the beginning of the year, the lab was coming out of another cycle of change and insecurity and was immediately hit by a budget proposal from the House of Representatives calling for a $400 million reduction.

In that context, getting back to “flat” in the interim budget resolution passed by Congress in November, also seemed like a significant advance.

Did LANL have anything to do with the turnaround, or was it just something that happened to them because Congress decided that way?

“It was their decision, but we get some credit for working with our delegation and keeping them informed,” said LANL Director Michael Anastasio.

But the laboratory still had to perform under a series of continuing resolutions at the beginning of the year, never quite knowing when or if the axe might fall.

“We had to manage the laboratory with an uncertain budget and put through a workforce reduction that was executed well,” Anastasio said. “But we never had to go to that final step of laying people off.”

That was all the while trying to make room in the old budget for new costs and trying to carve out some wiggle room in case one of the worst-case scenarios arose.

“We still had new costs to absorb, the pay-as you-go retirement costs, even paying ourselves a fee comes out of the lab’s budget,” Anastasio said, noting that the lab would continue to try to save money.

 “We’ll continue building efficiencies into our operations. We’ve just finished in-sourcing 900 KSL employees,” he said. “They started as LANS employees on Dec. 1, and everybody got paid. We’re looking at saving a significant amount of money.”

A year without a major scandal probably helped the cause. Scientific achievements like the Roadrunner and the successful completion of the unfinished axis of the Dual Axis Hydrodynamic Radiographic Test (DAHRT) facility also racked up some confidence in Washington.

The fact that DAHRT suffered another setback later in the year due to an avoidable mistake, as reported in the year-end evaluation, weakened a period with many positive aspects, as did an apparent resurgence of worker-safety related injuries.

New mission work, encouraged by NNSA, may help broaden the financial center of gravity at the lab, which has turned to engage new customers and a wider range of security challenges, including the challenge of clean energy and the threat of climate shift.

More changes seem inevitable as eight years of one administration gives way to the first year of another.

Anastasio was especially pleased that the lab managers had won an extra year on its contract, for a year that despite some pains showed signs of the old luster and stability after a many years without.