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"Forget the Rest" blog

The Santa Fe New Mexican

June 16, 2007


Udall can’t count on lab to lead new-energy future

By Peter Neils and Willem Malten

Congressman Tom Udall's opposition to proposed cuts to nuclear weapons programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory betrays many unexamined assumptions.

Does Rep. Udall think the United States needs to make more plutonium pits beyond the 23,000 we already have, or begin a huge program to manufacture a new generation of nuclear warheads? Since his apparent views on the national security value of new nuclear weapons don't track with broader thinkers on either side of the political spectrum, it seems his real concern is job security for people at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Rep. Udall believes, apparently as an act of faith, in the economic benefits LANL bestows without examining the opportunity costs of its presence here. The fact is that New Mexico's relative per capita income as a state is inversely related to federal spending at LANL and its sister lab Sandia.

As spending has quadrupled our per capita income has declined from 35th in the mid-1950s to nearly last in its ranking among the 50 states. In any case only a small percentage of people in his district, about

4 percent, derive all or part of their livelihood from LANL, and many of those come from elsewhere to fill those positions.

Well over two-thirds of Americans share the view that nuclear weapons no longer enhance our security.

Most politicians, including many so-called liberals, are simply being outflanked by pragmatists these days who can clearly read the writing on the wall; nuclear weapons do not enhance our security, and the money they leach from our coffers would be better spent on other programs that do, such as renewable energy programs.

Rep. Udall would delay weapons program cuts until LANL is offered big new programs in renewable energy, yet LANL has no expertise in this area. Other labs do. LANL has, if nothing else, demonstrated that it can not reliably bring a project in on time and within budget. In the case of some major initiatives, LANL simply is not up to the job at all. LANL's inefficiency may be the result of a culture of privilege that has hid behind the secrecy necessitated by national security concerns. If that is the case, the carte blanche the lab enjoys from New Mexico's congressional delegation is a big part of the problem. Rep. Udall offers no details on how the changes he wants about might be implemented, or how the lab might reform its spendthrift ways; indeed he doesn't even acknowledge that LANL has serious management problems. Apparently Rep. Udall isn't concerned about the absence of accountability at LANL, a situation which has helped the bottom line but not the culture at LANL.

Los Alamos is simply too far from the vital centers of knowledge and innovation in this country, and convenient transportation access to them, to attract the brightest young people who will be at the heart of the much needed energy revolution at which he hints. Its isolation, the very factor that made it attractive for the Manhattan Project, argues against it being successful in an open competition with more competent facilities. Isn't it absurd to argue that subsidizing inefficient facilities should, or even could, pave the way to a new energy future? Further, public investment in existing alternative technologies could have far greater positive impacts on carbon emissions and energy supply in a very short time frame than heavy investments in basic research. The existing culture at the lab already makes it difficult to attract top-tier talent and the level of mission "buy-in" is at an all time low. This is freely admitted by many longtime lab employees. In a sense, many scientists at the lab are ahead of politicians like Rep. Udall. The energy revolution Rep, Udall is using as a smokescreen for his defense of nuclear weapons programs probably will not, and very likely cannot, happen at Los Alamos.

Peter Neils is the president of the Los Alamos Study Group; Willem Malten is director.

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