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Important Senate Hearing on National Nuclear Security Administration

Richard M. Jones
Number 100 - June 5, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A hearing last month before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Senate Armed Services Committee offered important insights into the views of the directors of the national weapons laboratories and the co-chairman of a National Research Council committee that is in the process of issuing a second report on the laboratories.  The ninety-minute hearing, chaired by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), was also attended by subcommittee Ranking Member Deb Fischer (R-NE).

Appearing before the subcommittee were:

  • Penrose Albright, Director; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Paul Hommert, Director; Sandia National Laboratories
  • Charles McMillan, Director; Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Charles Shank, Co-Chair; Committee to Review the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the Department of Energy’s National Security Laboratories

The following are selections from the hearing’s official transcript prepared by the subcommittee regarding the Overall FY 2014 Funding Request, National Ignition Facility, Quality of Work at the Laboratories, Travel Restrictions, CMRR, Workforce, Laboratory Management and Current Environment. 

Overall FY 2014 Budget Request

McMillan:

“The President’s 2014 budget request is encouraging. But since the 2010 nuclear posture review, as you said, Senator Fischer, we are more than $1 billion from where we had expected to be when we laid out the Nuclear Posture Review. In today’s fiscal environment, we will be challenged to execute the strategies that we have laid out, and in my view, we must find new ways to deliver the capabilities the Nation needs.  The time has come to challenge conventional wisdom. This applies to big box nuclear facilities. It applies to future life extension projects, and it applies to work that our designers undertake at the laboratories. Put simply, we must implement a strategic risk assessment that balances value and cost. We must develop new approaches to sustain the stockpile in a more efficient manner.”

McMillan:

“Of course, stability, flexibility, and predictability will help us.  These are three things that are absent in continuing resolutions.  Because we have operated under continuing resolutions for the last several years, I have very little flexibility left at the laboratory for which I have responsibility to deal with that kind of uncertainty. Should we have another full-year CR in fiscal year 2014, I am concerned that it may well have negative impacts on the laboratory.”

National Ignition Facility

Albright:

“The fiscal year 2014 budget request undermines the execution of some key stewardship activities. I am particularly concerned about the impact of the budget request and operations at the National Ignition Facility, a uniquely important stewardship facility that because of its unmatched capabilities to provide data that is relevant to the nuclear performance of weapons. The request cuts $80 million from the unsequestered fiscal year 2013 operating budget for NIF, a nearly 25 percent reduction that comes on top of a $30 million cut in the prior year. This will significantly limit our ability to utilize the National Ignition Facility and undermine the stewardship program.”

Albright (in response to question about effect of not achieving sustained ignition):

“So let me actually start by pointing out that the National Ignition Facility is to this day doing many, many, many experiments in support of stockpile stewardship. We actually have a demand for about over twice the number of experiments, requests that we can actually satisfy in the facility today.

“The particular stewardship experiments that you are referring to have to do with thermonuclear burn. And there was a requirement or a milestone that passed last year without our achieving thermonuclear burn at NIF.

“The weapons issues that are associated with that have to do primarily with the uncertainties and the physics associated with what is called ‘boost.’  And this is a process that occurs right at the end of an implosion of a primary and is one of the remaining physics uncertainties that we have about the operation of nuclear weapons. In our computer codes, we have - my colleagues would call them – ‘adjustable parameters.’  I call them ‘fudge factors.’ We have parameters in the codes that we tune to replicate our experience with underground tests that we would prefer to actually have based on scientific fact. And that allows us then to assess options for life extension programs and to, frankly, just better understand the operation of a nuclear weapon if we were able to achieve fusion ignition at NIF.

“I would also like to point out that the National Ignition Facilities were reviewed by many, many external panels, National Academy of Sciences. We had a panel that Bob Byer led who was former President of the American Physical Society [a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics]. There have been numerous NNSA reviews. And every one of them has made the point that although a perhaps more deliberate approach is needed to try to achieve ignition and more time is needed, that there are no reasons to believe that ignition cannot be achieved at the National Ignition Facility.  So we continue to do experiments. Actually this more deliberate approach has been applied over the last year or so, and I can tell you it is showing very good dividends.”

Quality of Work at the Laboratories

Shank:

“So we decided to focus on four areas that are really at the core of the missions in the laboratories. Those are weapons science, modeling and simulation, weapons design, and systems engineering.  Jumping to the overall high-level result, we found that the quality of science and engineering at the laboratories in all the areas that we examined are sufficiently of high level to allow the laboratories to effectively certify the safety and reliability of the stockpile.  Nothing that we observed suggests that the science and engineering underpinning the stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation missions are currently compromised. The quality of these four areas of fundamental importance that we studied are very healthy and vibrant.”

Travel Restrictions

Shank:

“A supporting and nurturing work environment fosters the ability of highly creative scientists and engineers to do their work while encouraging the retention of senior staff and the recruitment effectively of younger staff. And I am going to just pick out one area here which I find particularly important and something that to scientists means a great deal, and that is the ability of scientists to interact with each other.

“Scientists in the national security laboratories are isolated from the world of broader science due to the classification and nature of their work. Recently imposed restrictions on traveling and conference attendance creates a kind of isolation. It limits career development, access to the latest scientific advances, and the ability of scientists and engineers to bring the full range of their relevant science to bear on work in the labs. From my own personal experience, many of the ideas that really helped advanced my personal science had to do with things that I learned in interactions at conferences.

“But if you could imagine the need for someone to attend a conference requires a 60-day notice, followed by often not being able be told whether you could attend the conference or not, maybe just a days before, and then having to buy very expensive tickets to attend that conference. I must say in my personal experience as a scientist over the years, the only place that I have ever seen travel restrictions operating in this [way] was with scientists from the former Soviet Union who were trying to attend conferences in the United States. They often did not show up at the last moment, and there was a process that none of us understood. And I think we are in a very similar environment at the moment.”

CMRR (Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility)

McMillan:

“The issues of CMRR go back to about 1983.  The current design that we were working on until a year ago was a design that was put in place in 2003, and because of changes in program, changes in our understanding of the cost associated with that facility, and changes in budget, we – ‘we’ -  meaning in particular the Government - have made a decision not to move forward with that right now, to delay it.

“Over the last year, we at Los Alamos have worked very hard to try to develop other options, and in particular, the other option that we brought forward to the Government for consideration is something that we call the modular approach. We recognize that it has been very difficult to build a facility that really does everything at once. And so like we build submarines, one at a time, we are looking at the question, can we build one module at a time that will provide capability when it is finished so that we can use it, we can learn from that building, and if necessary, build another. So that is the path forward we have laid out as an option for the Government.”

Workforce

Albright:

“I actually took a tour of the Twitter [work] site about 3 weeks ago. I am in the Bay Area, and it is a different universe, I will say. You know, we are never going to offer our people free lunches and we are never going to be able to offer -- or a massage room, which is what they had.

“But what we do offer is the ability to work with the very best in the country on mission. You know, the people who come to our laboratories come because they want to make a difference, and the kinds of things that we do in our laboratory make a difference. And as long as they feel that they can make that difference, we can retain them. They are working with the best facilities, the National Ignition Facility, DART over at Los Alamos, MESA at Sandia, and they work with the very best people. We still remain a destination for the very best and brightest in this country. I really worry about whether we can sustain that in the current environment.”

Shank:

“I think constant vigilance is going to be required in retaining those employees. Things are clear that currently there has been a slowdown in the market for such people. As the economy recovers, I think that is going to be more of a challenge. I think if you look at issues of working in an audit environment, working in an environment where your ability to grow as a scientist are restricted by the issues that I raised in conference travel and a lack of attention to the work environment, yes, I think there is a risk.

“I think that on the up side, the kind of people that we are talking about and I heard about here with my colleagues . . . described the kind of people they get. They are very motivated by the mission. And I think that when I talk to young people in the laboratories, you can clearly see they were motivated by the mission but very concerned about what was going to happen with their career with the trends in the work environment.”

Laboratory Management

Shank:

“First, this is public money, Federal money. It must have Federal oversight. It is absolutely essential for the trust and the ability of the Congress to be able to support this work that there be oversight. However, I believe that we could do a much more efficient oversight, and efficient oversight would come about rather than overseeing each detail, each action, we would put together a system much like a bank puts together a system. It does not look at any transaction but, in fact, looks at a system that is maintained by the laboratory and audits that so that there is a responsibility of the laboratories to be transparent and auditable in what they do. And at the same time, this gets efficiently done in a very cost-effective way with fewer people by putting the onus on the laboratories to be able to operate in a system that has been accepted and verified and one in which it can be audited.

“I spent the first 20 years of my career in private industry. If private industry did oversight of its work the way that we do at these national laboratories, it would be very difficult for them to survive financially. I think that we ought to look and realize that every time we spend money in doing something in an oversight issue which could be done more effective and efficiently, we are losing an opportunity. So I want to make very clear not just less oversight, more effective and more efficient oversight, look at things that are very, very important and give you an answer that you trust that the work is being done. If you look at the laboratories as untrustworthy institutions, then the kind of oversight that you are going to have is going to be one in which you want to look at every transaction. So the laboratory has to do work to raise their level of confidence and capability so they can be trusted to do this. So the core issue is trust. The long-term goal is efficiency.”

Current Environment

Hommert:

“In my view, we are now in an unprecedented time for the U.S. nuclear deterrent, a period when for the first time the nuclear weapons enterprise must address simultaneously three important imperatives: first, sustain a smaller and increasingly older legacy stockpile for many years to come; second, modernize the Nation’s nuclear deterrent consistent with policy; and three, continue to advance and utilize the tools of stewardship and ensure an infrastructure that can support these imperatives.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095