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U.S. energy secretary stresses importance of national labs

Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2017 12:01 am | Updated: 12:37 am, Wed Jan 11, 2017.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

MonizOutgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Tuesday stressed the importance of the nation’s 17 national laboratories but said the facilities face challenges due to aged and contaminated buildings, in recruiting and retaining scientists, and in overall management.

Moniz made the comments during a teleconference with reporters to announce the release of what the Department of Energy called the first annual report on the state of the laboratories, a largely glowing review of the work that the labs do in energy research, scientific leadership and national security.

“With the change of administration coming,” he said. “We thought it would be an excellent document to provide a new team with a comprehensive picture of the laboratories.”

Moniz called the labs the “bedrock of the United States’ research enterprise,” responsible for maintaining and updating the nuclear weapons stockpile, mitigating the risk of climate change and developing renewable energy and affordable wind and solar power.

He said the need to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile is questioned by few people in Washington, D.C. That modernization involves the restart at Los Alamos National Laboratory of the production of plutonium pits, which are the cores of atomic bombs.

The release of the 212-page report comes nine days before Donald Trump is to be sworn in as president and at an uncertain time for the national laboratories.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been selected by Trump to replace Moniz, said during his 2012 presidential campaign that the Department of Energy should be abolished. Trump also has called for rolling back efforts by the Obama administration to combat climate change.

In the teleconference, Moniz declined to talk about how policy or funding for the department might change under Perry’s leadership. He said only that he intended to speak with Perry about the labs and emphasize their value.

The labs cost nearly $14 billion to operate in federal fiscal year 2015, with more than $4.5 billion of that spent to run New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

Managerial problems, particularly at Los Alamos National Laboratory, have led to critical federal inspections and docked incentive pay for lab contractors in recent years.

Among the problems: The lab failed to properly package a transuranic waste drum that later burst in the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, leading to WIPP’s closure for nearly three years and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charles McMillan told Congress in September that the backlog of repairs needed for Cold War-era buildings at Los Alamos posed a threat not only to workers’ safety, but to national security.

Los Alamos National Security operates the lab under a contract with the Department of Energy, but the department announced in 2015 it would terminate the contract short of its maximum extension and put it out to bid. Los Alamos National Security is a consortium of the University of California; Bechtel; Babcock and Wilcox Technical Support Services; WXT Government Group Inc.; and URS Energy and Construction.

Los Alamos National Security, like other lab operators, has received incentive pay for meeting goals set by the Department of Energy, but Moniz said eliminating incentive pay for lab contractors would lead to more focus on public service.

Lab critics say the complexes have too much overhead and are failing at the larger mission of addressing climate change.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog group, said as long as incentive pay and the model of labs being run by for-profit private contractors exists, lab priorities can be shaped too often by profit considerations.

The report released by Moniz is an effort by the Department of Energy “to get as much money for the DOE labs as possible,” he said.

“DOE is not succeeding in its core energy mission,” he said, “and has failed to adequately sound the alarm on the most serious national security crisis we face, namely climate change.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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