Sunday, August 20, 2017

Citizens Thriving on Nuke Work

NM citizens thriving on nuclear weapons work inveigle NNSA/DOE for lucrative new LANL contract.

Residents of northern New Mexico, dependent on nuclear weapons work, are galvanized by the prospect of a new LANL contract:

As reported by Tris DeRoma for the Los Almos Monitor, on Friday, August 18, 2017

"Low contract fee could spell trouble for northern New Mexico, advisor warns"

"An advisor to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, John Jewkowski,  expressed concern about a one percent performance fee in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s draft request proposal for the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s management and operations contract. The one percent fee is two percentage points lower than what the current contract is now."

"The first point Jekowsky made is that the low fee may not be enough to attract the right type of company or organization that could run a nuclear laboratory effectively. He also doubted that even if the NNSA reestablished the three percent performance fee that is in the current contract the NNSA has with Los Alamos National Security LLC, it still might not be enough to attract the best and the brightest."

“ 'Even back in that timeframe, that 2012, 2014 timeframe, major corporate entities, CEOs, and major executives of major corporate entities were telling DOE (the Department of Energy), ‘look, three and a half percent does not cut it,' ” Jekowsky said. “ 'We’re all publically traded companies… we have shareholders and boards of directors we all have to report to. The work we do outside the DOE typically earns us, five percent, six percent, seven percent in terms of a profit or fee for that work. Three and a half percent just doesn’t cut it.' ”

"Jekowsky also said if the NNSA sticks to the one percent fee, that will mean less money if the management and operations contract goes to a consortium, and that will also mean less money the consortium would give back to the community in the form of support for non-profit efforts, education and partnerships."


This is the latest of a series of articles in the Los Alamos Monitor describing a public debate about the size of the management fee to be specified by the new contract. The present fee is ~3% of the cost of the contract, ~$2.5 billion per year, so that the annual fee is now set at  ~$75 million. This contract has been in place since 2006, and the contractor, a for-profit entity LANS-LLC , was created expressly to advantage a small number of LANL senior managers, who became the principal owners of LANS-LLC. The CEO of LANS-LLC, also the LANL Director,  takes home ~$1.5 million, each year.

However, prior to 2006, and running all the way back to 1943, the contractor at LANL was the University of California, a not for-profit entity, who sometimes set its own management fee as low as $1. In early 2016, and with UC as the contractor, the LANL Director received an annual salary of just ~$200,000.

A little more history:

From 1943, and continuously until 2006, LANL had been managed by UC as a public service. In the earliest years, the Lab had a clear mission and a reason to exist. At that time, it was staffed by scientists and engineers who were said to be among the nation's best and brightest.

By 1950, many of the Lab's technical stars (Bethe and Fermi, to name two) had returned to academe, although often remaining affiliated with the Lab. However, a few became disillusioned with the use to which their technical work had been put, and severed all ties with the Lab (such as Leo Szilard.)

In the 1950's, the Lab became embroiled in a controversy over the development of thermonuclear weapons. These weapons, largely developed at LLNL (since its founding, in 1952, by Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, and until 2007, also managed by UC as a public service,) appeared to many to unnecessarily fan the flames of confrontation between the USA and the USSR. Even so, both LANL and LLNL retained their clear mission and reason to exist.

Subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, following the cessation of underground nuclear weapons testing in 1996, and with ~30,000 nuclear weapons piled up in the US arsenal of nuclear weapons, DOE managers were moved to create a new mission for themselves and for the Labs. This was Science Based Stockpile Stewardship, an approach to maintaining the nuclear arsenal by means of computer simulations, along with ancillary sub-critical nuclear testing, in lieu of underground testing of intact nuclear weapons. The program has continued for the last ~25 years. Various outside technical advisory groups, such as JASON, have signaled to DOE their belief that the program has produced reliable technical results for the Labs.

SBSS is now known as Stockpile Stewardship, or SS, de-emphasizing the fact that predictions of future performance of nuclear weapons is now based entirely on the results of computer simulations, and laboratory-scale testing.

In spite of this apparent recent success, it may be that the Labs' current mission lacks sufficient appeal to attract today's best and the brightest into its service.

Meanwhile, the Labs, especially LANL, have had problems with safety and security. These problems began to interest the national press in ~1990, increasing in visibility throughout the Clinton Administration, and into the G W Bush Administration, where it was decided that the fault lay with shoddy UC management; the cure for which was judged to be a for-profit contractor who, motivated by a desire for lucre, would be a better manager.

Looking a bit more closely here, problems of apparent  Lab and DOE mismanagement seemed to rise in ~1995, when a Lab-wide RIF at LANL was devised as a means to cope with what was advertised as a funding short-fall, but one that never materialized. Morale of LANL staff plunged in the wake of the RIF, and staff paranoia grew. Next came the Wen Ho Lee affair, in 1999, aggravated by panicky reactions of  higher-ups in the Clinton Administration; e.g., especially, those of Attorney General, Janet Reno, and Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.

Then, during the Bush years (2000-2009,) DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham (2001-2005,) a former US Senator from Michigan and co-founder of the Federalist Society, appointed George Peter Nanos as LANL Director (2003-2005.) This former US Navy Vice Admiral seemed to believe that he would cure purported management problems at LANL, by teaching LANL's "butt-heads and cowboys" who was boss. One of his lasting accomplishments was to change the UC inspired practice of allowing retired LANL scientists to continue working on Lab science projects, in Lab-provided space, after retirement. Nanos said that his practice was an example of "bad academic culture" encouraged by UC, which led to the "coddling" of Lab scientists, who would be better off with a more military-style discipline.

Back to the present:

Several interested parties have spoken out about the RFP, put out recently by NNSA/DOE, as a guide to selection of the next LANL contractor. Many of these opinions have been described in the LAM, by Tris De Roma. Opinions expressed were those of: UPTE, RCLC, LAPS, LAC. Even though each has its own constituency, the points-of-view have not differed significantly among three of the four, the exception being of that of UPTE, who speaks only for the LANL technical staff. The other three groups represent the economic interests of the citizens of northern New Mexico who may or may not work at LANL, but whose quality of life could be affected by economic benefits brought into the local comuunity by the nuclear weapons industry. Among the three community groups, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities expresses general interests of communities stretching northward from Santa Fe;  Los Alamos County has views limited by the boundaries of the County; and Los Alamos Public Schools is concerned with the LA public school system. However, all three groups are sure that their interests would be best served by a for-profit contractor working for a management fee of at least 3% of the total contract.

UPTE is distinct in advocating for a new not-for-profit contractor, one working for a management fee of just 1%, but focussed on the elaboration of a clear new Lab mission and on the protection of benefits and status for the technical staff. To be sure, in the last twenty years, the technical staff has lost much in the way of benefits and of status. For example, a defined benefit plan that once guaranteed a retirement benefit of 2.5% of the average salary earned over the three years prior to retirement has been replaced by a defined contribution plan paying an unguaranteed retirement benefit of 2.0% per year of employment. Similarly, a vacation benefit of five weeks paid vacation for every new hiree has been replaced by an initial benefit of two weeks paid vacation.

What is clear, however, is that all of these groups seem economically bound to the the continuation of the nuclear weapons industry in northern New Mexico. Indeed, in a public meeting about the RFP that took place in Los Alamos in late April, 2017, the Executive Director of the RCLC was asked by a member of the public if she (Andrea Romero) was at all reluctant to be advocating for the very dirty nuclear weapons industry. She answered simply, "People have to have jobs."

This seems to me to be both shocking and ordinary at the same time, and is part of the wrenching experience of living with nuclear weapons.


From the earliest days, in 1943, the Lab's work surged in spite of problems with both safety and security. As a result of safety failures, lives were lost; and as a result of security lapses, secret technical information was disseminated to the Russians. And yet the Lab's nuclear weapons work continued. The Lab had a clear mission then, led by a generation of old-timers, all of whom were "there at the beginning": J Robert Oppenheimer (1943-1945), Norris Bradbury (1945-1970), and Harold Agnew (1970-1979.)

One might say that the Lab entered the modern era with the arrival of Lab Director Donald Kerr (1979-1986,) and that modernizing trends continued with Director Sigfried Hecker (1986-1997.) It seems that during Hecker's tenure problems of safety and security began to attract the attention of a critical national press.

Following the debacle of the RIF of 1995, Hecker stepped down and was replaced by John Browne (1997-2003,) who himself may have been damaged by political fallout from the Wen Ho Lee affair. Next came the brief and troubled tenure of G P Nanos (2003-2005,) followed by the holdover year of Robert Kukuck (2005-2006.)

In 2006, a new for-profit LANL contract was let to LANS-LLC, and a form of nuclear weapons profiteering began at LANL., which continues to this day.

Even so, security problems continued under LANS-LLC, although abated; safety violations, however, led to injuries and down-time, approximately at the same rate as before. In any case, the Lab's problems with safety and security were certainly not cured by the addition of lucre as a contractor motivating force.

But, according to the consultant, J Jewkowski, hired by RCLC, the resolution of the Lab's problems must lie in the application of even more lucre.

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