Friday, May 6, 2005
Rep.: Why Not Close LANL?
By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON— Exasperated U.S. House members on Thursday condemned a "culture of non-compliance" at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and one congressman suggested closing the famous nuclear weapons lab for good.
"We have a lab here that is a constant problem," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, said during a Capitol Hill hearing. "Why do we need this one? Is there any really unique science that can only be done there? Why do we need Los Alamos?"
The laboratory— plagued in recent years by security lapses, safety incidents, theft and general mismanagement— came under a hot congressional glare Thursday for the fourth time since 2003.
Members of a House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations repeatedly asked top officials from the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration what could be done to improve operations at the beleaguered institution.
Stupak, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, suggested closing the lab and transferring its work to other national nuclear facilities.
Lab defenders quickly rejected Stupak's proposal as exorbitantly expensive and impractical. But at the same time, they could not immediately pinpoint a single scientific function that could not be carried out at one of America's other nuclear facilities.
"There is some unique infrastructure that would be very difficult and expensive to move," said Jerry Paul, principal deputy administrator at the NNSA.
Paul said having multiple labs allows for "peer review" among scientists at different facilities, which improves the quality of science. He also said LANL's operational controls are improving, but the changes can't happen overnight.
"It is not as simple as blaming a single person," Paul said. "It is difficult and it does take time."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., New Mexico's senior senator and an influential supporter of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, said Thursday's hearing in the House might have been "one-sided."
"I'm quite certain that if there was a high-level Department of Energy effort to explain the significance of Los Alamos and how these problems are being addressed, the matter would have turned out differently," said Domenici, who was in Albuquerque on Thursday.
Domenici also said the Internet "carping" by LANL employees presents a very one-sided view of the atmosphere at the lab.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also defended LANL and its mission.
"Since its inception LANL has filled a unique and incredibly significant role in our country's national security," Bingaman said. "Anyone who would question the lab's importance clearly does not have an understanding of all that this lab has done and continues to do for the country."
Thursday's hearing came less than a week before the federal government opens its first competition for a new contract to run the 62-year-old weapons lab. The University of California is the only institution to ever hold the contract.
To date, only Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have announced a plan to bid on the management job. University of California officials have said they are awaiting the government's request for proposal— due in mid-May— before deciding whether to bid.
At least one member of the House panel said he was glad that other institutions would be given a shot at winning the contract.
"I'm delighted a new RFP for this facility is being issued," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
Edwin L. Wilmot, manager of the Los Alamos Site Office, said the many lab employees, especially those in high-end nuclear operations, have realized that cultural changes must occur.
"I see a small light at the end of the tunnel," Wilmot said, noting that similar institutional changes took five to seven years at the Savannah River nuclear site. "It will take a considerable amount of time."
Several committee members said they were frustrated that high-profile, embarrassing incidents— most recently the permanent injury of a college intern's eye by a Los Alamos laser— keep happening at LANL, despite promises of improvement.
"Since last summer we've seen problem after problem after problem," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "We're tired of having these hearings."
Committee members also ridiculed a recent Internet blog circulated among lab employees. The blog contains vehement and often highly personal attacks on Pete Nanos, the lab's director, according to members of the committee.
DeGette said the attacks were mostly juvenile and reveal an "arrogance" among lab employees.
"There is obviously a big group (of LANL employees) that just doesn't get it," she said. "The level of these complaints are like high-school-level complaints."
Wilmot said the lab, long home to some of the world's top scientific minds, has historically not worked well as a cohesive institution. But that is beginning to change in the aftermath of a recent shutdown of the entire lab operation related to security concerns, he said.
"Since February, I've seen an institution struggling to come together," he said.
Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal