Clarification: In this article it was stated that Los Alamos National Laboratory has over 6,800 UC employees and 2,800 contract personnel. While this has been true in the past, the recent management contract signed last year no longer considers these persons as UC employees, but as employees of Los Alamos National Security LLC.
Despite increases in facility security and program redevelopment, the University of California-managed Los Alamos National Laboratory is currently facing several threats to its funding and longevity from government officials.
The Dept. of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees LANL, is in the midst of drafting Complex 2030, a program that would reduce the size and budget of nuclear research facilities – including LANL – by one-third.
In his 2008 budget proposal, President George W. Bush asked to cut $192 million dollars to LANL and Sandia National Laboratories, also located in New Mexico.
Finally, a Texas representative has introduced a bill that would strip the NNSA of its oversight responsibilities due to recent security breaches, and throw the future of the laboratory into even more uncertainty.
And as this three-pronged attack against LANL sharpens, the lab continues with its competition against Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – located in Northern California and also UC-managed – to oversee the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. The winner will create a new nuclear weapons design to replace warhead stockpiles with less dangerous versions, and receive an undisclosed amount of funding for it.
“The nuclear program is in a limbo phase,” said Andrew Culp, research and advocacy associate for the Nuclear Peace Age Foundation – a frequent critic of the labs.
“The vast majority of the American population thinks we don’t need it. …Why do we still have these?”
With 6,800 UC employees and 2,800 contract personnel on its payroll, LANL is hoping to answer that soon.
Los Alamos National Laboratory: Nuclear Research History
U.S. nuclear research began shortly after August 2, 1939, when Albert Einstein convinced President Franklin Roosevelt of Germany’s potential to create the atomic bomb. When the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt expanded the program, directing the War Dept. to develop the Manhattan Project.
Research leader and UC Berkeley physics professor J. Robert Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos as the nuclear laboratory site for this operation because of its isolation.
Weapons research continued into the Cold War era, but new weapon designs declined in number from the 1960s onward as the U.S. chose to focus on upgrading the current weapons stockpile and performing safety tests. Nuclear testing was later narrowed to only allow underground detonations after the U.S. and 112 other nations signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty that took effect Oct. 10, 1963. The U.S. has not performed an underground test since 1992.
University of California Involvement
The UC has managed LANL since 1943, receiving money from the federal government as compensation, and over the past decade LANL has formed 300 industrial partnerships worth in excess of $650 million. The University also manages two other federal research labs – the 130-acre Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and 200-acre Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
UC spokesman Chris Harrington said no university funding is directed toward lab management.
“Student fees do not go to the labs, although the University does benefit in terms of partner research,” Harrington said. “Energy efficiency, cancer research and homeland security brings the best and brightest scientists. … That’s why the University is involved with the labs.
In a May 25, 2005, statement, UC President Robert Dynes said he supports the UC contract with LANL because the University has a strong approach to science.
“I’d rather be on the inside having a voice, playing a role in the decision-making, and bringing the values of good science to the institution than on the outside looking in,” Dynes said. “We will not have national security if we do not have the best science conducted by the best scientists, supported by the highest-quality research organization – which is what we have at the University of California.”
Recently, the UC renewed its management contract with LANL for $512 million; however, it is no longer the sole manager as it is with LBNL and LLNL. Under the new U.S. Dept. of Energy contract, the UC and three corporations – Bechtel, BWX Technologies and Washington Group International – manage LLNL as part of a new limited liability corporation, the Los Alamos National Security LLC.
The University beat out the University of Texas for the LANL contract. Texas Representative Lon Burnam criticized UT for its contract attempt last week when he submitted a new bill to the state senate on Feb. 14. If passed, the bill would ban Texas public universities from assisting in weapons research.
Burnam’s Legislative Director Doug Lewin said Burnam opposes UT involvement because it places the public on the wrong side of the nuclear proliferation debate.
“Public universities shouldn’t be in business of developing nuclear weapons,” Lewin said. “Public values do not include potential nuclear development. … [UT] spent several millions on consultants and traveling expenses.”
Nuclear Weapon and Funding Reductions
In the past five years, U.S. government officials and agencies have drafted policies to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles and facilities, with the obvious effect of limiting the funding and growth of national laboratories like LANL.
Currently, the U.S. and Russia are in agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals to somewhere between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by Dec. 31, 2012 as part of the Treaty for Strategic Offensive Reductions, signed by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 24, 2002.
U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Bryan Wilkes said the Treaty reduces the nuclear stockpile by nearly 50-percent.
“It’s the lowest level since the Eisenhower administration,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes said he could not disclose the current amount of nuclear warheads.
In his 2008 draft budget, President Bush proposed reducing funding to LANL and Sandia National Laboratories by $192 million. Wilkes said the NNSA is also attempting to minimize costs and nuclear facility sizes with its Complex 2030 draft proposal.
“[Complex 2030] reduces one-third of the budget for weapons activities,” Wilkes said. “It will make facilities more efficient and more secure.”
According to an NNSA press release, components of Complex 2030 include ensuring the long-term reliability and safety of nuclear weapons stockpiles, reducing the need for underground nuclear testing, dismantling retired warheads, increasing security and establishing a consolidated plutonium center for research, development, production and surveillance operations.
U.S. Dept. of Energy spokesman John Belluardo said it was premature to determine Complex 2030’s future effects as it is still in development, including the level of necessary personnel layoffs. He said the DOE and NNSA plan to present Complex 2030 for public comment this summer and then redraft the plan for presentation to Congress.
Security Problems and Criticism
Last month, several congressmen expressed frustration with LANL security, threatening to remove classified projects such as its plutonium pit production or even shut the lab down. LANL is the United States’ sole producer of plutonium pits.
House Energy and Commerce Committee representatives simultaneously introduced a measure to bar NNSA from further LANL security governance and return direct control to DOE, putting programs such as Complex 2030 in jeopardy.
Such moves come after waves of security breaches. Most recently, hundreds of classified LANL document pages saved on a personal computer were found during an October 2006 drug raid; the suspect had ties to a female LANL contract employee.
In 2003, it was alleged that the UC mismanaged the lab by misallocating $15 million in government funds and allowing periodic breaches of nuclear security policy. During the 1990s, two hard drives containing classified information disappeared and were later found behind a copy machine, while another incident forced a temporary shutdown of LANL when two computer disks were thought missing. After an inventory evaluation, it was determined the disks never existed.
Although Congress has yet to issue a decision regarding LANL security, LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said the lab has made several recent improvements to facility security. Roark said LANL has strengthened its fences and cyber security to prevent future computer intrusions. He also said the LANL guard force is skilled in securing the lab perimeters.
“The guard force is very well-trained and well-equipped,” Roark said. “Currently, their training tactics are similar to [military] combat units.”
NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said the agency has conducted security evaluations and determined facility weak points. He said each facility uses different defense techniques.
“[Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratories] has a gatling gun,” Wilkes said. “They are useful if you have 30 suicide terrorists. … [whereas] Los Alamos might defend differently.”
He said NNSA hopes to reduce external costs and increase security funding with projects such as Complex 2030.
Despite the laboratory’s efforts, anti-nuclear groups such as Santa Barbara’s Nuclear Peace Age Foundation and the Los Alamos Study Group have denounced Complex 2030 and LANL’s weapons research altogether, saying such programs set bad precedent for a country looking to establish peace with its neighbors.
Andrew Culp of NPAF said Complex 2030 is an attempt to keep a failing program afloat.
“Complex 2030 is just an excuse for the nuclear complex to get new money,” Culp said. “The complex is falling apart.”
Culp said NNSA is using Complex 2030 to extend the lifespan of facilities such as LANL by claiming that a smaller environment is cheaper to maintain. He said the program will serve as an excuse for the labs to continue nuclear weapons development.
LASG Executive Director Greg Mello also said Complex 2030 is a way for LANL to maintain longevity.
“Its programs are old and stale,” Mello said. “I think Complex 2030 is a red herring and Congress and the public need to keep their eyes on the ball and work for nuclear disarmament.”