ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —Representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration met this week with principal contractors and stakeholders in a forum for Nuclear Security Decision-Makers.
Facilitated by Monitor Publications president and publisher Ed Helminski, the gathering included the directors of the three weapons laboratories and managers from the major operations within the complex.
The general objective was an exchange of views and information among government officials, private industry executives and non-governmental organizations on critical national issues facing the nuclear weapons complex. While there was initial focus on the major projects needed for competent science-based stockpile stewardship — such as the National Ignition Facility, the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamics Test Facility (DARHT), and the Z-Machine — two key problematic threads were universally woven through the reports and presentations.
The first dealt with aging infrastructure. Throughout the complex, aged facilities, many dating back to the Manhattan Project, are beyond the point of practical repair, and will continually require ever-increasing costly maintenance. The second dealt with an aging workforce, where critical skills are at risk of being lost to retirements. Employee recruiting and retention is vital, and recruiting has become increasingly difficult in all markets.
Via satellite link, the conference opened with live video from Washington, D.C., first with opening remarks from New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, followed by the keynote opening delivered by NNSA’s Administrator, Gen. John Gordon. He mentioned the new operating contracts that recently had been signed throughout the complex, including the extensions with the University of California.
Gordon also stressed the need for effective security. He stated that he wouldn’t accept the concept of a conflict between science and security. He is implementing an integrated approach to safeguards and security management. Gordon mentioned his pleasure with the work performed on both the NIF and ASCI projects, as part of “across the board progress” toward regaining congressional support. He mentioned that more work was needed in the important area of pit production and recertification.
Ralph Erickson, acting principal deputy administrator for Operations in NNSA/DP followed Gordon, stressing the need for enhanced cyber security. He added a key message that, “funding will never be as good as it once was, but things are getting better.” He added that Gordon wants a “corporate approach” to managing the complex.
The laboratories speak
The three weapons lab directors spoke on their perspectives of the most pressing needs. Paul Robinson of Sandia emphasized the important role of nuclear weapons in the world order, and that U.S. nuclear weapons play a crucial role in preserving world peace. Robinson stressed that the U.S. stockpile must be able to “deter any nation or sub-national entity from using any weapon of mass destruction against the United States or its allies.”
John Browne of LANL expressed his three “pressing needs” as people, facilities and efficiencies. Browne reiterated the importance of NIF, ASCI and DARHT, adding the need for programs for proton radiography and advanced hydorotesting. He expressed concern about the ability to train the next generation of stewards. In this regard he’s made it a goal to recruit 50 percent of new hires at the entry level, adding that it’s important to attract candidates before they receive their Ph.Ds.
Livermore Director Bruce Tarter spoke of the “next phase change in the stockpile stewardship program” and a modern production complex “where capability is much more important than capacity.” Tarter added that Livermore recently underwent a major people change that was skills-based, and effectively changed the character of the workforce. Regarding the NNSA infrastructure, Tarter added that merely staving off the worst doesn’t suit the future. He urged participants to create a culture that “exchanges technical support” rather than “building monasteries.”
A later session captured participant interest so well that questions had to be terminated 30 minutes into the dinner hour. The topic was recruiting and maintaining the engineering and scientific workforce. Lab Executive Office Ron Cochran represented Livermore and advocated a trilogy of world-class facilities, world-class people, and stable funding following “a mission that inspires.” He added that the degree of difficulty of recruiting and retaining personnel has increased now that Silicon Valley firms are encroaching near Livermore, saying that “the high-tech competition is moving in.” Cochran lauded projects such as ASCI that “touch so many young people at colleges and universities.”
In a separate session, former Livermore Director Johnny Foster addressed the forum on maintaining the reliability, safety and security of the nuclear stockpile while recognizing the demands of rebuilding the infrastructure. Foster spoke of his role on “The Foster Commission,” citing the importance of meeting near-term production demands, and stressing that stockpile certification is a process that must overcome all uncertainties. “It is not just paperwork,” he emphasized.
Monitor publications include Weapons Complex Monitor and Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor. Conference details can be found at www.exchangemonitor.com.