Monday, February 27, 2012

NRC Studies NNSA and Its Nuke Labs

On Feb. 15, 2012, the National Research Council issued an report on the relationship between the quality of science and engineering practiced at the three nuclear weapons labs, and the management and oversight provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration and their three for-profit management contractors. This interesting report is entitled "Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories" and it was authored by the "Committee to Review the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the Department of Energy's National Security Laboratories - Phase 1; National Research Council of the National Academies."

In the following, I first quote from the study committee's report and then remark about the material being quoted.

Summary section; p2-3: "While the new contracts at LANL and LLNL clearly produced a noticeable level of staff frustration, staff members with whom the study committee interacted continued to show a strong commitment to  their work. Those who testified to the study committee about morale problems spoke primarily of the situation as it  existed at the time of the contract transitions, or of the subsequent layoffs at LLNL. When the study committee  examined the M&O contracts, it found very little that prescribes the management of S&E. Many of the bureaucratic frustrations raised at all levels appear to be either within the power of the Laboratories to address or driven by governance strategies above the Laboratory level: they are not traceable to the M&O contractor or the contracts themselves. It is indeed true that all three Labs have been under cost and funding pressure. In the case of LANL and LLNL that pressure is connected with the contract change; the costs of their re-competed contracts are significantly greater than the previous contracting arrangements. But this is due to the combined effect of increased contractor fees, pension obligations, and, in the case of LANL, a need to now pay New Mexico state taxes. Accounts that attribute the increased cost simply to award fees are not accurate. Some employees and stakeholders have been concerned that M&O contractors pursuing a fee might not act in the public interest, and this is an important issue. Therefore, the study committee discussed incentives with the three Laboratory directors and was convinced that their primary objective remains to manage the Laboratories in the public interest."

[Remark: Just prior to the contract change at LANL, in June, 2006, the then X-Div Head, Paul Hommert, promised an assembly of X-Div staff that the new contact would encourage a significant increase in the number of management personnel. Seemingly, he was not suggesting that inefficiency would be increasing under the new contract; rather, that there would be more opportunity for the financial betterment of individual staff members. He did not say, although it soon turned out to be the case, that management salaries, combined with "award fees", would greatly increase. For example, the LANL Director's total compensation for CY2005 was ~$350,000 while for CY2007 it increased to ~$1.5 million. Paul Hommert is now the President and Director of SNL.]

Summary section; p3: "An evolution of the Laboratory missions to “National Security Laboratories” is well underway. The absence of nuclear testing means that experimental validation of much of the S&E performed by the  Laboratories is not possible, and thereby lessening the intellectual attractiveness of the work for at least some  prospective employees. The expansion of the Laboratories’ mission into new non-nuclear areas offers the prospect of increasing the Laboratories’ appeal to top-quality scientists and engineers while also serving important national security missions. Thus, the quality of S&E, being preconditioned on attracting high-quality people, depends in the long run on successfully making this transition to National Security Laboratories. ................. . In a time of constrained budgets, broadening the mandate to a national security mission helps preserve S&E expertise by providing opportunities to work on problems posed by partner agencies. However, while such Work for Others (WFO) is very important for the future of S&E at the Laboratories, all three of the Laboratory directors were very clear that maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs."

[Remark: Presumably, the study committee means that nuclear weapons are still the core mission. However, to the extent that the Labs remain undiversified, then the future of the Labs is uncertain, since the future of the nuclear weapons industry is itself uncertain. See my earlier blogposts about this subject. Maintaining this industry at its present size seems counter-productive to the national interest, both politically and economically, and a clear violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, to which the US is a signatory and of which it is the number one promoter. Of course, there are significant numbers of traditionalists in Congress who continue to argue for more and better nuclear weapons. Those whose careers are bound up with the nuclear weapons industry abhor the idea of any reduction in spending for the care and feeding of these monsters of mass-destruction.]

Summary section; p3: "Recommendation 3-1:
The study committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs, and in that context consider endorsing and supporting in some way the evolution of the NNSA Laboratories to National Security Laboratories ................ ."

[Remark: The adopted language suggests that the study committee recognizes the mission of the Labs to be evolving away from nuclear weapons and recommends that Congress should also recognize this fact. Of course, there are those members of  Congress who are already working to promote such an evolution and those members who have long been opposing any such change; then there are those members of Congress who still have no particular view about this subject. Perhaps the study committee is also addressing the uncommitted members of Congress.]

Summary section; p6: "Recommendation 5-1:
The study committee recommends that the NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories recognize that safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention. NNSA and Laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety, and security costs can be reduced, so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E activities."

[Remark: It is hard to believe that the management problems that emerged at LANL before, during, and just after the Wen Ho Lee affair have all disappeared. It seemed clear at the time that these problems led to the creation of the NNSA; i.e., as a means to intensify management oversight of the Labs in the areas of safety and security. During that period of media frenzy and rapid turnover in the office of the LANL Director, the DOE and the newly created NNSA, as well as the contractor UC, adopted some desperate measures. Perhaps their most unsuitable choice for LANL Director, Peter Nanos (2003-2005), was so shaken by those events that he angrily announced to an all hands meeting that LANL was run by a "culture of cowboys and buttheads", but that he would soon fix all those problems. Among his punishing measures were: a) Closing the Lab cafeteria until bad attitudes improved. Cowboys would have to bring their lunches from home. (But, this lasted just a few weeks.); b) Announcing that Lab retirees would no longer be allowed to retain a Lab office (except for Lab Fellows.) This contravened ~60 years of LANL tradition, but butt-heads were deemed unworthy of such a perk. (This Nanos-like policy continues to the present day.)]
Contracts section; Finding 2-1; p14: "There is widespread perception among Laboratory personnel that the new contracts are not to their benefit. On the other hand, the study committee found that the staff at LANL and LLNL, as well as SNL, remains highly motivated and enthusiastic about the S&E work at the Laboratories."

[Remark: Appendix 8 describes questions asked of staff and management at the Labs during interviews conducted by the study committee. Apparently, all of the evidence accumulated regarding employee motivation and satisfaction was anecdotal; i.e., no attempt was made to systematically survey employee attitudes.]

Research base and Evolution of the Mission section; p16: "It is for this reason that the study committee was pleased to see that a governance charter was established in June 2010 among the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Defense, plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. .......... The four-agency charter recognizes the value of the Laboratories to broad national security research activities, and that this broader work is synergistic with the Laboratories’ core nuclear weapons mission. The transition from nuclear-weapons-only Labs to national security Labs is well underway."

"Finding 3-1:
All three Laboratories and the NNSA have strongly emphasized that their core mission is to assure a reliable, safe, and secure nuclear weapons stockpile, and that all other research activities contribute to the development and maintenance of the scientific and engineering capabilities required to effectively execute this mission."

"Finding 3-2:
NNSA leadership has expressed a compelling vision for the Labs as national security Labs, maintaining nuclear weapons as the core mission while also contributing importantly to other national security areas."

"Recommendation 3-1:
The study committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs, and in that context consider endorsing and supporting in some manner the evolution of the NNSA Laboratories to National Security Laboratories as described in the July 2010 four agency Governance Charter for an Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of DOE National Laboratories."

[Remark: covered already in remarks to the Summary section.]

Broken Relationship section; p22: "The management relationship between the Department of Energy, NNSA, and its national security Laboratories is defined by detailed contracts focused on assuring that the work of the Laboratory is conducted in an environmentally responsible, safe and secure manner, and that operations of the Laboratory maintain fiscal integrity. .......... . However, in an environment of broken trust, it carries a high risk that management will focus almost entirely on those contractual scoring criteria that account for the majority of the award fee, to the detriment of the science and engineering components of the mission."

[Remark: Evidently, in spite of the good intentions of current Lab Directors.]

p44: "Appendix 3: Review of Relevant Studies and Reports 1995–2010"

"Evolving and Persisting Issues in the Management of the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories"

"1. An unclear commitment to, and view of, the Laboratory mission;"

"3. Unclear roles and responsibilities assigned to DOE/NNSA headquarters and to the offices and programs included within the lab governance structure, ill-defined and duplicated lines of authority and oversight, including the failure of NNSA to achieve its intended independence;"

"4. Excessive number of reviews and oversight by external organizations, particularly by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board."

[Remark: (1) As the study committee points out, the Labs' mission has been changing. Hence, it seems unsurprising that Congress and the NNSA would have a hard time adjusting to an ever changing mission. More importantly, the mission will likely continue to change.]

[Remark: (3) Also understandable, considering the fact that the long-term mission of the Labs is a subject of ongoing controversy in Congress.]

[Remark: (4) In my opinion, the DNFSB performs a valuable role in maintaining contacts between Congress, NNSA, and the general public with regard to operations at the nuclear weapons labs. Major construction projects, such as the CMRR-NF at LANL are also subject to the NEPA process. Both the DNFSB and the NEPA process may be seen as inefficient by those wishing to create clarity of vision, or to expedite desired outcomes; however, they are both integral parts of a political process, mandated by Congress.]

p105-106: "Appendix 7: Selected Supporting Information; Section VII: Lab Productivity"

"Lab productivity can be measured in a number of ways, including the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published each year, and through the various awards earned by Lab scientists. Several of the Laboratories’ key achievements from recent years are highlighted below."

"Los Alamos National Laboratory:
In FY2011:
- LANL had 2,079 peer-reviewed publications, the highest since 2006 [and for a PhD staff of ~3000.]
- The Lab’s number of post-doctoral candidates was at an all-time high.
- LANL won three R&D 100 Awards.
-The E.O. Lawrence Award, which recognizes exceptional contributions in R&D that
support the DOE and its missions, was awarded to two LANL scientists.
LANL Peer Reviewed Publications:
                                    2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
LANL Pubs                   ?   1928   1780 1743     ?      2079 [a rate of ~0.6/year/PhD staff member]
LDRD Supported         ?     401   452   376       ?        ?  [a rate of ~2.0/year/LDRD supported staff member]
% due to LDRD             ?     21%  25%  22%        ?       ?

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
In FY2011:
-LLNL won two R&D 100 Awards.
-LLNL researchers received Secretary of Energy Achievement Awards.

LLNL Journal papers:
                                                2004 2005 2006 2007 2008  2009 2010
All LLNL articles               1158 1296 1237  1162    1097  1001  910

LDRD articles                       210   250   247   237     211       161   186

LDRD articles % of total  18%  19%  20%    20%      19%     16%  20%"

[Remark: This is a peculiar choice for a measure of general Lab productivity! Speaking from personal experience, during my 20 year tenure at LANL (X-Div) I authored ~40 publications which appeared in refereed journals, a rate of publication of 2 per year and, therefore, ~3x the average rate at LANL. However, I never received encouragement for these efforts; I certainly never received any reward in the form of a larger than average annual salary increase. Instead, larger than average salary increases went to those who performed nuclear weapons related work. This did not include publishing in the open literature; it usually did not include publication in the classified literature, either. Indeed, it was often the case that weaponeers and engineering staff would make disparaging remarks about those who "wasted time" publishing journal articles. It was said, in all seriousness, that "people who published journal articles should be fired." To be sure, this was an attitude that prevailed among staff in X-Div; but, in T-Div, which lived on LDRD funding, the attitude was entirely different. However, T-Div comprises only ~5% of PhD staff at the Lab. To repeat, this is a peculiar choice for a measure of general Lab productivity!]

[Remark: If Lab productivity within the last ~20 years were to be honestly assessed, then the rate of journal publication would have to be assigned only a negligible role. Rather, a dominant role should be assigned to developments in nuclear weapons codes, calculations simulating past nuclear weapons tests, experiments relating to nuclear weapons effects, recertification of stock-piled nuclear weapons designs, etc. Of course, funding for just this kind of work has made up more than half of the Labs' budget for the last ~20 years.]

[Remark: Perhaps the study committee has more of an eye on the Labs' future than on their past. Nevertheless, any misrepresentation of the kind of work being performed at the Labs, and of the environment that prevails there, would be a poor basis for formulating recommendations about the future. In particular, the academic style that once pervaded large parts of LANL and LLNL has departed with the not-for-profit contractor.]

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