Today, May 31, 2006 marks the end of the University of California as the sole manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), after a 63-year run. Tomorrow LANL will come under the management of Bechtel, the University of California, BWX Technologies, and Washington Group International, collectively known as Los Alamos National Security (LANS), LLC, a private, for profit enterprise.
When nuclear testing ended in 1992 Laboratory personnel scrambled to find new missions for the institution. The 1990s transition to the Stockpile Stewardship Program of maintaining our nuclear weapons without testing made a lot of people nervous. Some critics initially doubted this program, but more weapons specialists are now putting their faith in it. Los Alamos is at a turning point not only with a new managing entity, but in the fundamental way that weapons are designed, fielded, and managed. If successful, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program may reinvigorate some of the lost mission or give impetus to a new mission in a focused and tangible way for the first time since testing ended.
The Stockpile Stewardship Program, by all reliable accounts, is working well enough to support yearly weapons certification. And RRW may reinvigorate excitement among employees and facilitate something of a return to normalcy and respite from the turmoil of the last several years that included the Wen Ho Lee incident, charges of missing classified computer drives, and other managerial problems that demoralized employees and drove out a good number of staff.
But change is inevitable. And usually change is good. LANS should seek to preserve what science and basic research it can. And in doing this, LANL’s new managers need to reinvigorate the scientific mentoring culture that once permeated the institution. Rather than driving the final nail in the coffin of basic research and freedom of academic science at the Department of Energy Labs, this management change should be turned into an opportunity for the national laboratories and the Department of Energy to reinvigorate their missions, clean up their operating structure and oversight methods, motivate and reward their staff members, clarify their responsibilities in the post-Cold War era, and develop a strategy that maximizes return and value for every dollar invested in the national labs. Such a model will command respect from both complex supporters and critics.
(Anne Fitzpatrick spent two tenures at Los Alamos during her career, as a graduate research assistant in the mid-1990s and later as a Technical Staff Member)