Closure process for Fed Labs suggested; same as military base closure process

Reply Thu 17 Nov, 2011 12:17 pm
Closure Process For Fed Labs Suggested
By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer
Nov 17, 2011

Facing intense budget pressure, the U.S. Department of Energy should consider the equivalent of the military’s base closure process for its sprawling research lab complex, an internal agency review has recommended.

Two of those labs are in New Mexico, where the Department’s nuclear weapons program is a major employer.

The Department of Energy spends more money in New Mexico than any other state – $4.1 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That money supports some 20,000 workers at Los Alamos and Sandia labs, where U.S. nuclear weapons are designed, manufactured and maintained.

Laboratories Sandia National Laboratories should be part of a federal spending review, according to a new report from the Office of Inspector General. (courtesy of sandia national)

The Inspector General’s annual “Management Challenges at the Department of Energy” report suggests creating “an independent panel to comprehensively examine alternatives for evaluating, consolidating, and/or realigning the Department’s R&D laboratory complex.”

Sandia and Los Alamos are two of 16 Energy Department research centers around the country, with total spending across the system of $10.4 billion, according to the new report. One key problem cited by the Inspector General’s analysis is the high cost of overhead at the federal labs. According to the report, 35 percent to 40 percent of the government spending goes to support services, rather than research.

“This cost structure, specifically the proportion of scarce science resources diverted to administrative, overhead, and indirect costs for each laboratory, may be unsustainable in the current budget environment,” the report concluded.

Support costs – money spent on things other than research – totaled 49.9 percent of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s budget in 2009 and 35.2 percent of Sandia National Laboratories’ budget, according to an Energy Department report.

It is not clear whether the proposal will gain any traction in Washington, but it illustrates the budgetary dilemma faced by the massive Energy Department as federal officials look for ways to reduce spending.

“We know of no other time in recent memory when there was such a broad and bipartisan consensus concerning the need to reduce federal spending and address the nation’s mounting debt,” the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General explained in the report made public Tuesday.

The report comes as nuclear weapons program supporters worked in Congress to try to reverse congressional decisions over the summer to slow the Obama administration’s proposed growth in the U.S. nuclear weapons budget.

Beyond nuclear weapons work, the Energy Department’s lab complex spans the country and a range of science issues, from high energy physics at Fermilab in Illinois to biofuels, wind and solar energy at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

While much of the report’s discussion focuses on the non-weapons labs, which would have a minimal effect in New Mexico, the suggestion that there be some sort of nuclear weapons lab consolidation has long been circulated. Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, raised it again Wednesday in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “One of the country’s two main weapons-design laboratories, at Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., could gradually get out of the nuclear weapons business,” O’Hanlon wrote in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times.

Sandia Labs, headquartered in Albuquerque, would continue the nuclear weapon engineering work it does today, according to O’Hanlon. Without ever formally declaring such a policy, the Department of Energy has already been moving in that direction, with steady increases in nuclear weapons spending at Los Alamos and Sandia while Lawrence Livermore’s budget remains flat.

In a telephone interview, O’Hanlon argued that spending at the labs has to be part of the defense budget-cutting discussion as the nation’s leaders work to reduce the federal deficit.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., expressed doubts about whether the Inspector General’s idea would gain enough adherents to move forward. “I haven’t heard any serious conversation about it in Congress or here in Washington,” Bingaman said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
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