Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Science" at LANL, however we may define it, is likely to be de-emphasized

Is plutonium pit production somewhat toxic to science? (comment on CMRR
thread at LANL: The Real Story)

Dear Doug –

I find myself in agreement with those contributors who suggest that the
plutonium pit production mission, among related pending changes, is
likely to dramatically change the culture at LANL.

The change may not be linear. It's possibly there could be relatively
big cultural changes once (unknown) thresholds are passed.

Especially as pit production grows, "science" at LANL, however we may
define it, is likely to be de-emphasized for a variety of
straightforward financial and programmatic reasons, as already mentioned
by various commenters on this blog. These reasons might include (the
following estimates vary widely in precision; perhaps other contributors
can improve them):

* A likely decline in overall budget and purchasing power in real dollar
terms, both at LANL specifically and in the NNSA budget as a whole. The
country is broke and there are a lot of other competing priorities, and
annual inflation is now a nontrivial factor. Ballpark decline: at least
10% over the next 3 years, or at least $200 M/year after 3 years.
Inflation alone is highly likely to account for this much.

* LANS must pay gross receipts taxes, unlike UC. Ballpark increase: $75

* Isn't there now an imperative for NNSA and LANS to pay into employees'
pensions which wasn't there before? I am not sure of this but as a
placeholder perhaps $80M/year would work as a guess.

* Won't there be increases in salaries of upper management and some
smaller increases for middle management? Ballpark: $10 M/year.

* Aren't there to be more organizational units, and hence more managers,
an overhead function? If real, put $10 M/year here.

* There are likely to be increases in security costs due to increased
special nuclear materials handling for pit production. Ballpark: $10 M.

* There is likely to be an increase in management fee, aka profit.
Ballpark increase: $60 M.

* There are slated to be increases in annual funding for construction
projects at LANL. Over the next 3 years, the increase in the sum of
“Facilities and Infrastructure Recapitalization Programs” [RTBF] and
“Readiness in Technical Base and Facilities” [FIRP] at LANL is about
$160 M. This is an annual figure.

The total impact of these changes on the overall program funding
available at LANL is fairly large. These numbers sum to an impact of
about a negative $600 M/year 3 years out. Help me out here if I've made
some mistake. Whatever the number, it's large.

The effective programmatic shrinkage at LANL, however great it turns out
to be, is likely to disproportionately take place in portions of the
budget which are NOT pit certification and production, which is now
LANL's greatest importance to NNSA. There could even be hidden increases
in the budget for manufacturing and related engineering work.

About what percent of LANL's total effort is "science" today? This isn't
easy to estimate precisely because of the ambiguity contained in the
term "science," but I would say, based on NNSA and UC data, that about
one-third of current UC employees at LANL are working scientists.
Overall perhaps one-fourth of the personnel at LANL are working
scientists. (It's easier to work from personnel categories than from
budget categories to get at this elusive fraction.) The exact fraction
doesn’t affect the overall argument, but the smaller the fraction of
LANL devoted to "science," the greater the relative impact of these
programmatic declines, because the manufacturing missions will be
protected and indeed are a major reason for some of the budgetary and
institutional changes -- perhaps for most of them.

Bottom line: science at LANL will decline, and quite likely at a greater
fractional rate than the LANL budget as a whole. It could fall from
about one-third of the lab’s effort to what -- about one fifth?
One-sixth? A different way of saying this is that as LANS takes over,
and as manufacturing missions grow (some of this is visible growth, i.e.
construction) the overhead for science at LANL is likely to rise,
producing less science for the same money.

If this is anywhere near true, these changes would seem to transform
LANL from what LANL employees have understood to be a science lab,
albeit one with high overhead and some manufacturing, to something
closer to a manufacturing center, again with high overhead, that does
some science on the side.

Plutonium, with its panoply of costs, is fairly toxic to non-plutonium
science, especially in larger doses.

We can be sure that pit production already dominates the consciousness
of the LANS corporate board, because contract continuation is likely to
be contingent upon success in that mission more than any other single
one. I would say that re-starting the production of nuclear weapons –
including the RRW program and the associated awakening of the
“responsive infrastructure” – is NNSA’s highest single priority.

DOE auditors provided us here a printout of current contracts in which
the value of the current LANS contract is shown at $36.6 billion
dollars. Bechtel is the sole recipient or partner in DOE/NNSA contracts
valued at nearly $100 billion in that same spreadsheet. For WGI it's $58
billion, and for BWXT it's $63 billion (some of these contracts
overlap). These are now essentially "no-bid" contracts. Needless to say,
this is a lot of money. These companies will do practically anything to
keep these huge contracts. This too will change the LANL culture. If you
get in the way of a multi-billion dollar funding stream, watch out.

Again, assuming any of this is anywhere near right, LANL's reputation as
a science institution is poised to fall (further). The quality of
science and scientists LANL can attract and keep is likely to drop as
well, as are various blinders. Won't LANL just be a dirty industrial lab
engaged in a dirty business, fouling its own nest in the process?

NNSA's plans du jour are to eventually abandon LANL’s plutonium mission,
about the time existing facilities wear out. The House Appropriations
Committee would prefer to skip some of the wasteful and "irrational"
higher-capacity pit production steps at LANL, especially the CMRR
facility, a ~ $1 B project tied to other major facility upgrades at LANL
in what must be about a ~$2 B package. They would prefer to go straight
on to a shiny new bomb factory in the desert somewhere, likely Nevada.

My own take on this is that the CMRR project is indeed irrational 57
ways to Sunday, both in detail and as policy. It is a terrible and
unnecessary boondoggle that will hurt LANL, damage U.S. national
security, and waste a gob of money. But unlike Mr. Hobson I don't want a
shiny new bomb factory. Even if one wants to keep nuclear weapons, and I
don't, neither is needed for a long time.

LANL and the town of Los Alamos do not have an easy future ahead under
any scenario, but some scenarios are worse than others. Especially given
that the House wants the CMRR project stopped, it might behoove NNSA and
LANS not to start it yet.

If anyone is interested, here are some relevant links on our (Los Alamos
Study Group) web site:

Declining Federal Oversight at Los Alamos, Increasing Production
Incentives: A Dangerous Divergence. Presentation to the Defense Nuclear
Safety Board (DNFSB), 3/22/06.

U.S. Enters New Nuclear Age as Bush Seeks Funds for New Generation of
Nukes (3/2/06): United States
Military Spending (2/10/06):

Expansion of LANL Waste Disposal: Lots of Mostly New-Made Waste
(1/25/06): and

About the LANS partners (1/18/06): and

DOE Manager To Hear Advisory Board, Citizen Concerns Regarding Nuclear
Disposal; Secretive Disposal Plans Face Scrutiny, Censure (1/24/06):

Sweeping Plan to Build New Warheads to Be Part of Bush Nuclear Budget;
Los Alamos Is Pivotal Site; Weapons head Linton Brooks’ remarks in
Livermore imply that $4 billion Los Alamos plutonium “pit” program is
now primarily aimed at producing new warheads (2/6/06)

The campaign for & against plutonium manufacturing & new weapons is
heating up (4/7/06)


Greg Mello

Greg Mello
Los Alamos Study Group
2901 Summit Place NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-265-1200 voice
505-265-1207 fax
505-577-8563 cell
(signal very weak in the office; messages
on cell phone may not be received promptly)

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