Broader Agenda For Weapons Labs | July 21, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 29 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 29 | p. 10 | News of The Week
Issue Date: July 21, 2008

Broader Agenda For Weapons Labs

Half of labs' work will be non-weapons-related science
Department: Government & Policy
Credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL
Credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL

TOP OFFICIALS at the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories are planning a shift in research focus that will result in 50% of the labs' work being unrelated to nuclear weapons. That reduces nuclear-weapons-related work by 20 to 30% of current levels at most of the labs.

The labs expect that the majority of the new research will come from projects within other parts of the federal government, explained Thomas P. D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). He was joined last week by the directors of Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, as well as the head of the Nevada Test Site, in briefing reporters in Washington, D.C., and in testifying before a House Armed Services subcommittee.

The officials stressed what they called a new vision for NNSA. In a statement, they described NNSA as "moving from an outdated, Cold War-era nuclear weapons complex of today to a smaller, safer, more secure, and less expensive complex for the 21st century." D'Agostino noted that the weapons responsibilities of the labs shrank along with the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Much of the research shift would expand security-related projects such as developing technologies to detect improvised explosive devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan, equipment to detect and disarm nuclear explosives, and technologies to counter bioterrorist devices, officials said.

But lab directors also pointed to a greater emphasis on nonsecurity research such as science for nuclear power, climate change, biofuels, solar energy, energy storage, and carbon capture and sequestration.

The shift comes at a time when the labs face continued budget reductions and have trimmed thousands of employees. It also comes as the labs are moving ahead on a long-term plan to modernize the overall weapons complex and reduce the workforce by 20 to 30%, as well as decrease the physical footprint of the weapons complex by one-third (C&EN, June 30, page 30).

At the House hearing, Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), a lab advocate and chair of the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, urged a national debate on the future role of nuclear weapons before plunging ahead on modernization. Similar concerns have led to reductions in lab funding by congressional Appropriation Committees. Tauscher warned that Congress must set a path to ensure old buildings don't crumble and staff aren't laid off while the complex is modernized for demands of a post-Cold War world.

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