Friday, October 12, 2012

DOE/NNSA Assigns New Money to Nukish R&D

In the wake of the privatization of management contracts at the two senior US nuclear weapons laboratories, (Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2006, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory  in 2007, both during the G W Bush Administration) Department Of Energy's efforts to obtain more bang for its research buck is being thwarted. As a measure of the size of this problem, the National Research Council warned in a recent report that both the quantity and quality of research being conducted at the nuclear weapons labs has declined since the advent of privatization. (See: NRC report dated April 18, 2012 entitled "Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories.")

It is unclear to NRC whether fault lies in the structure of the present management contracts, whether it is inherent in the for-profit management construct, as applied to the nuclear weapons labs, or if it is to be laid entirely at the feet of DOE and/or its daughter agency the National Nuclear Security Administration. Certainly, in their report, NRC revisited some of the complaints made by interested parties about DOE/NNSA micromanagement and mismanagement. But, these complaints are not new, and have been heard since DOE's founding during the Carter Administration, and since NNSA's founding during the Clinton Administration. Indeed, DOE was founded in order to correct management problems thought to exist in ERDA, its predecessor agency, and NNSA was founded in order to correct suspected management problems in DOE.

More specifically, those in the know assert that there has been a recent decrease at the labs in the amount of work supported by institutional funds redirected from day-to-day weapons work to research performed in support of the weapons program; i.e., so-called programmatic research. Prior to 2006, these funds had been redirected at the discretion of low-level technical management, and were expended in addition to Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) money, awarded through a competitive process and earmarked specifically for R&D work, not all of which was programmatic. Today, LDRD money continues to be supplied for this purpose by DOE to its nuclear weapons labs, but NRC considers that this is insufficient. Discretionary funds are no longer available to weapons research since they are being absorbed by out-sized management salaries and bonuses; e.g., to the tune of ~$70 million each, at LANL and LLNL.

In trying to overcome this perceived short-fall in discretionary funding for nuclear weapons research, the DOE has adopted a strategy of awarding research dollars directly to individuals; usually, ones who are either already employed at a nuclear weapons lab, or who work at an institution of higher learning where programmatic research is being conducted under contract. Thus, DOE is attempting to intervene in a faltering research process by "reaching over the heads" of its for-profit managers at the nuclear weapons labs. (See: DOE Press Release dated Sept 20, 2012, announcing "NNSA, DOE Office of Science Award $14M in Research Grants," available at: and

In any case, more money is going again into nuclear weapons R&D. Clearly, this is advantageous for the nuclear weapons industry, and for its present economic engine, the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. It is the SSMP which produces demand pull for ever more information about the operation of nuclear weapons. Thus, in the absence of nuclear weapons explosive testing, the USA has come to lead the world in the development of the means to test nuclear weapons indirectly via computer simulation, and indirectly via laboratory scale tests of related weapons components and concepts. Whether this work constitutes a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be a matter for government lawyers to decide.

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