Thursday, November 17, 2005


UC has run the nation's top weapons lab for six decades. Will it all end this week?

Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Los Alamos National Lab employees are anxiously awaiting the climax of a four-year saga: a decision that will determine who runs the world's most glamorous and controversial nuclear weapons lab and that also could end the University of California's unchallenged six-decade domination of the U.S. weapons program.

An announcement could come soon, perhaps even Friday.

The decision will wrap up a six-month competition to run scandal-shaken Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. UC and its industrial partners, including San Francisco-based Bechtel National Inc., are competing for the contract against aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. and its allies -- the huge University of Texas system, several New Mexico universities and various industrial partners.


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What happened to LANL in the past is still outrageous; national security was put at risk by George Peter Nanos when he shut the place down for well over a half a year. We are still feeling the effects, believe me. Not only in the cheaper theoretical areas of research, but in the more expensive, and some might say, critical areas of experimental research. The morale here is abysmal. People's lives have been wrenched apart by the political games that have been played. You can't hold people's careers by the heels out over the balcony, without them feeling threatened and cheapened. No matter whether management makes bold claims that all the "deliverables" have been met, we are still struggling to get back up on our feet and wipe the blood from our faces. That is why this benighted scheme of privatization of one of the nation's premier scientific research institutions is such a terribly bad idea, in my opinion. I see that whether or not one military-industrial corporate entity or another ultimately runs this Lab, it represents a repudiation of science by the Bush Administration and by the Republican-dominated Congress. But does anyone in Washington, DC, care? I believe that New Mexico's Congressman Tom Udall and Senator Jeff Bingaman do care about science. All the rest is a struggle over pork-barrel or faith-based politics, and not at all a reflection of how science can make our country truly secure in this dangerous world. Danger comes from so many directions now: the energy crisis, global warming, the worldwide struggle for food and water, and the resulting international political instability. All of these problems could be addressed by our national laboratories; in other words, it isn't just about nukes.

OK, now for the future: I believe that Lockheed-Martin will win the contract, and Bechtel will lose. Notice that I did not mention the University of Texas, because they are not a really serious part of this competition. Notice that I did not mention the University of California, because they are no longer a serious part of this, either. (Their passive-aggressive failures in the last year have lost them almost all the credibility they ever had among the LANL staff over the last 60 years.) I have a bet with a friend that, in spite of my own personal preference, LockMart will win. If so, he will buy me two bottles of 12-year-old McCallan single-malt scotch; if not, and Bechtel wins (oh, and UC...I almost forgot), I will buy him one 18-year-old bottle; in either case, there will be some sharing. The idea is that, if LockMart wins, we need two bottles to drown our sorrows; if Bechtel wins, we need to celebrate with less, but better scotch. In any event, we aren't talking about a bottle of fine champagne, which would have been reserved for the case that Congress and DOE would have called off the whole absurd re-bidding "bidness."

What about the 'Other' national laboratories that already have the mission, mandate and funding to be addressing some of the myriad of topics to which you allude.

The NNSA labs have their own missions and I would propose that it is mainly about 'the nukes'. Maybe we could get by with less money and the other labs get more to deal with the issues in their arenas.

But lets not forget that just because 'we' built the bomb we may not be the right place for every other problem in the world to be solved, as well.

If you take a look around Los Alamos National Laboratory, you will find pockets of quality in a remarkably wide range of topics being studied. To limit any one of the national laboratories to narrow pursuits is to imagine that scientific quality can be lumped. I learned from my experience in the Engineering Department, just after my postdoc in the Theoretical Division (where I got my start in the theoretical side of transport theory, to be applied to reactor safety), that a wide portfolio in a research organization is best for everyone. It guarantees survival of funding vagaries, and even more importantly, it fosters cross-fertilization.

Nukes only (or waste dumps only, or pit factories only) is the kiss of death for a scientific laboratory.

-Brad Lee Holian, LANL Lab Associate
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