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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Science and engineering quality at national security laboratories

New report reviews science and engineering quality at national security laboratories Public release date: 10-Sep-2013 Contact: Molly Galvin National Academy of Sciences WASHINGTON — The science and engineering capabilities that underpin the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation missions at the nation's three national security laboratories are "healthy and vibrant," says a new report from the National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report found no problems with the quality of science and engineering that would prevent certification of the stockpile. However, the report identifies several issues that, if not addressed, have the potential to erode the ability to perform high-quality work at the laboratories. Congress asked the Research Council to review the quality of scientific research and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), which are part of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This report is the second of the two-phase study; the first report, released in February 2012, examined management of the laboratories. The new report examines the laboratories' capabilities in four areas of fundamental importance to their primary missions: (1) weapons design; (2) system engineering and understanding of the effects of aging on system performance; (3) weapons science base; and (4) modeling and simulation. In many areas, science and engineering at the laboratories is of very high quality. But the report identifies several stresses that could contribute to the deterioration of the work environment for scientists and engineers and limit the quality of their work in the future – and thus the nation's ability to benefit fully from the laboratories' potential. The United States declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in 1992. In the absence of new test data, the science-based stockpile stewardship program relies on pre-moratorium test data, computer models and simulations, surveillance, and other experiments . The laboratories are building enhanced computational models that account for changes in weapon properties as they age, and this requires state-of-the-art S&E capabilities in a number of areas, the report says. NNSA should conduct a detailed assessment of simulation and modeling needs over the next decade and implement an adequately funded plan to meet those needs. Experimental work is essential to the laboratories' missions. While the safety risks inherent in some experimentation must be controlled, the report says that the current system for managing these risks is contributing to escalating costs and schedule delays, and in some cases may limit experimentation. The U.S. Department of Energy and NNSA should work with laboratory managers to review the system for assessing and mitigating these risks to improve efficiency while maintaining a safe working environment. The laboratories maintain and operate world-class experimental facilities, but smaller experimental facilities are also essential for the laboratories to conduct their work and to attract and retain staff, the report says. For example, these smaller facilities are important for producing weapons components such as neutron generators or for processing plutonium and evaluating how it ages. The laboratory directors should ensure a proper balance between these small scientific facilities and the larger signature facilities.


Anonymous said...

Spot on.

Anonymous said...

Until we test again, the metrics for measuring performance are piecemeal and vulnerable to rationalization.

Does it go boom where and when you want it to, and sit there safely otherwise is the question.

Do you believe Parney when he says they will? Since he doesn't know a pit from a pendulum, he will ask someone down the hall. They in turn, will call over to the experts, with the help on an interpreter. Sound like the Challenger design process?

As an old timer has many surprises and made many mistakes, I would sleep better if we still tested underground on a regular basis.

Someday, Israel is going to use one to protect its existence. Or a rogue will acquire and use one. At that point, I would be more comfortable with recent test results than Parney's successor's assurance.

Anonymous said...

Of course, we warned a flood of letters during the public comment period to NNSA summarizing the widely-known shortcomings that would occur if it went forward with the devastating mistake of privatizing the labs in 2007-2008. Pissing in the wind.

It does nothing to be right when surrounded by fools.

It would have been better if D'Agostino, Pryzbylek and Bodman had been in a plane crash.

Anonymous said...

This is the same Parney who told you that NNSA would match your 10% salary reduciton contribution to TCP-1?

That's the person verifying the stockpile?

Anonymous said...

How many times have we seen these reports over the last few decades? They always say the same thing: NNSA oversight is dysfunctional and too risk adverse without concern for risk-to-cost, therefore costs are way too high at the labs. Too much management and overhead. Too little focus on science with too much focus on bureaucratic CYA activities, blah, blah, blah....

Nothing changes. Rinse & repeat. In a few years we'll see another report with the same stuff and nothing will have improved. It will only get WORSE! Why even bother with these reports? They make good fireplace fuel for the winter but little else.

Anonymous said...

You can spin this report a couple of ways.

If the quality of science is not failing, then credit must be given to those that led the two Labs in this area for the recent past. Thomas and Wallace are heroes, should have monuments erected to their accomplishments, and are deserving of being elevated to the Director's office. Congress can ignore the pleas for more funding in this area, because all is well.

On the other hand, if the quality is not what it used to be, then who should take the hit? The standard 'blame NNSA' chorus is already singing at full voice. While not innocent, there is plenty of fault elsewhere as well. Maybe the caliber of Lab scientific leadership was different in bygone days.

Either way, taking responsibility for the quality at the local level, and not being so quick to blame outside factors could be a good start to addressing the report.

Anonymous said...

"Thomas and Wallace are heroes, should have monuments erected to their accomplishments, and are deserving of being elevated to the Director's office. Congress can ignore the pleas for more funding in this area, because all is well."

You have a point about Thomas but with Wallace I have my doubts.


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