Thursday, January 20, 2005

Albuquerque Journal story regarding LANL benefits

DOE nominee wants LANL benefits to stay

Albuquerque Journal North…Adam Rankin

January 20, 2005

Samuel W. Bodman, President Bush's nominee for Energy secretary, promised Wednesday that no Los Alamos National Laboratory employee or retiree would lose an existing pension or health benefit due to a change in the lab's management.

"I am happy to make that commitment," Bodman told Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, according to a statement issued by Domenici.

Bodman spoke during a confirmation hearing before the committee in Washington.

LANL employees and retirees have been voicing increased concern over the security of their retirement benefits, which they fear are perceived as excessive and therefore vulnerable to cuts in a new contract.

The University of California has managed LANL since 1943, but the contract is up for competitive bidding. Employees fear that a new manager, unless required, won't match the quality of UC's benefits.

Earlier this week, hundreds of LANL employees and retirees turned out at a meeting sponsored by Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to urge the congressman to help protect their benefits. Several warned Udall that unless benefits are protected in writing, thousands of LANL scientists and other employees might retire early to preserve the value of their pensions, rather than risk having the benefits transferred to a program of lesser value.

Domenici, acknowledging the contract competition is causing concern "among a number of superb scientists," asked Bodman if he shared the commitment to protect the benefits first made by outgoing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham two years ago.

"I would go on to say that I consider Los Alamos to be among the crown jewels... of this nation's technological effort and anything I can do to enhance that— not just leave it the way it is, but enhance it— I will do," Bodman said, according to the statement from Domenici.

Bodman, currently deputy Treasury secretary, previously served as deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce. He was also a science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he appreciated Bodman's commitment.

Bingaman said he believes benefits packages should be evaluated as part of bidders' proposals to run the weapons lab, and not after the contract is awarded, as DOE's request for proposals from potential LANL managers currently reads.

"If we are going to prevent the early retirement of the lab's invaluable senior scientists and retain the best and brightest of the young scientists, I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring the benefits package is as good or better than the one currently offered by the University of California," Bingaman said after the hearing, according to a statement issued by his office.

Bingaman also asked Bodman to give "careful consideration" to a proposed new DOE rule for using polygraphs on lab employees. Not yet in final form, the rule reduces the number of lab employees subject to polygraph tests for security purposes but continues to call for use of the tests.

"This proposal permits a more liberal use of that tool than is justified by science," Bingaman told Bodman. "I ask that you listen closely to members of the scientific community before it is finalized."

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal




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