Saturday, March 05, 2005

Senators Fear for Lab's Future

Albuquerque Journal North
Saturday, March 5, 2005

Senators Fear for Lab's Future

Journal Staff Writer

New issues are being raised— along with tension levels— concerning the contract competition for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The University of California is using a search firm to troll for a potential laboratory director— although current director Pete Nanos has given no indication he's leaving the job— and New Mexico's senators say changes in the competition are biased against the university and threaten the nuclear weapons laboratory's mission.

The University of California has operated LANL since 1943 but its current contract expires at the end of September. Then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham decided to put the contract up for competitive bids in April 2003 following a series of financial, security and management problems highlighted in widely publicized congressional hearings.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said this week that he is concerned that the purpose of the contract competition— to strengthen LANL's scientific mission and its oversight of the nation's nuclear stockpile— has been lost.

"Instead, the contract competition has become a substantial destabilizing influence on both laboratory morale and the ability to retain the skilled employees who are the heart of the laboratory's technical strength in the future," Bingaman said in a statement.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he worries the competition is being slanted against the University of California.

"The more I look at the situation, the more troubled I am by the current (National Nuclear Security Administration) proposal, which could be construed as being unfairly calibrated to make it very difficult for UC to get the bid," Domenici said.

"We need a bidding process that is fair and does not have the unintended consequence of causing a mass exodus of our best scientists from the lab," he said.

Changes in criteria
The NNSA, which is part of the Department of Energy, made some changes to the competition criteria in February, including requiring a standalone pension and benefits plan for LANL employees and establishing a separate corporate entity to run the laboratory.

The senators said in a joint letter to new Energy Secretary Sam Bodman that such a move could trigger an exodus of the most senior weapons designers who would retire to secure their current, lucrative UC benefits and could lead to younger scientists seeking employment elsewhere.

The senators also expressed concerns that some changes in the criteria could increase by $100 million LANL's overhead costs to operate the lab.

"Make no mistake; this will have a negative impact on program funding and scientific research," the senators wrote.

Changes in the bidding criteria that the senators agreed with include allowing a 180-day transition period for employees and retirees to evaluate the winning bid and proposed benefits plan and extending the contract term to seven years from five years.

Over the last year tension has grown between some LANL scientists and Nanos, who took over as LANL director early in 2003, highlighted by last summer's labwide shutdown over safety and security concerns.

Many scientists took offense at Nanos' description of scientists who didn't follow procedures as "cowboys" and "buttheads" and continue to harbor hurt feelings over their perceived poor treatment through the shutdown.

One scientist recently posted on a popular blog Web site that he was considering wearing a red "R" pinned to his shirt to symbolize to LANL management that he is prepared to resign and that he has job offers elsewhere.

Lab director's job

The University of California's decision to use a search firm to look for a lab director has spurred speculation about Nanos' own future at Los Alamos.

UC spokesman Chris Harrington, in a prepared statement, said Friday: "The Los Alamos National Laboratory draft request for proposals identifies senior laboratory leadership as part of the criteria upon which any potential bidder will be scored. The University of California as part of our due diligence is conducting a thorough review of potential senior management team members. The University is looking at a full range of candidates, including the incumbents..."

"The University of California is continuing to prepare as if we will compete for continued management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The final decision will be made by the UC Board of Regents after the final RFP is released. "

And Nanos, in his own statement, said: "As director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, I serve at the pleasure of the University of California Board of Regents. As the University continues to prepare for the forthcoming competition, I believe it is in the best interest of the laboratory and the university to conduct a thorough review of the senior management team. I am particularly proud of this laboratory, the great science performed here, and the men and women who work here on behalf of the nation's interest. I look forward to this Laboratory's bright future."

Boy, look what it takes to wake up Bingaman and Domenici. Clearly DOE/NNSA has no idea how to write the specs for an RFP, probably because the smartest people at DOE are the ones on change-of-station from LANL.

Is it a surprise to anyone that DOE/NNSA has to "level the playing field" on the backs of LANL employees? DOE has been trying to grab the UC/LANL retirement fund since Hazel was Secretary of DOE.

UC's score on senior laboratory leadership
should be 0, but because DOE/NNSA must concur on the director, it's impossible to know how much to attribute to UC and to DOE/NNSA.

If UC President Dynes had an courage at all, he would tell all who are UC employees exactly where he stands on Nanos and the LANL senior management.
Dynes is surrounded by a Great Wall of Silence. He laid all the bricks himself. Principled men and women sometimes must demonstrate that they have a spine. Silence in the face of tyranny is its abettor.

As to DOE, in a June 1999 report, the Presidential Commission chaired by Senator Warren Rudman presented its bottom line: "The national labs of the Department of Energy are among the crown jewels of the world's government-sponsored scientific research and development organizations. With its record as the incubator for the work of many talented scientists and engineers—including many Nobel prize winners—it has provided the nation with far-reaching advantages. Its discoveries not only helped the United States to prevail in the Cold War, they will undoubtedly provide both technological benefits and inspiration for the progress of generations to come. Its vibrancy is derived to a great extent from its ability to attract talent from the widest possible pool, and it should continue to capitalize on the expertise of immigrant scientists and engineers. However, the DEPARTMENT has devoted far too little time, attention, and resources to the prosaic but grave responsibilities of security and counterintelligence in managing its weapons and other national security programs."

What Senator Rudman could have said but didn't is that every problem that Los Alamos has experienced with CREM could have been eliminated entirely if DOE followed accountability rules established in every other federal department including DoD and the CIA. In those organizations CREM is not kept in a system of accountability unless the information itself would be in accountability were it printed out in paper form." If DOE, wants its CREM in accountability, it should have fully funded the RED Network instead of cutting those funds year after year.

Senator Rudman's bottom line could be shortened to: Feckless is as feckless does.
You are absolutely correct. The DOE's lack of responsibility in the CREM incident is absolutely intolerable. They shifted all responsibility for all CREM problems to LANL, forgetting to mention that part of the responsibility was theirs because they did not fund the extension of the red network when this was clearly critical to the security of classified data at LANL.

The DOE is as full of cowards who will not say, 'the emperor is naked", as is UC and our Congressional delegation.

Bodman needs to hear this, loud and clear.

And the country needs to know that much classified information could be missing because other agencies do not have the same reporting mechanisms as LANL. Talk about really scary!
Interesting that the only Senators that seem to "Fear for [the] Lab's Future" appear to be the 2 from New Mexico.

Hate to say it, but a lot of Senators have no doubt watched as DOE has shrunk the Complex and put some hurt on their constituents. Would not be surprising to hear that they really are the only 2 that care.

If true, that does not bode well for LANL after Sen. Domenici is gone.
The Rudman report is well worth reading. Where have I heard those words before?
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