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Labs' Staff Called 'Key to Our Future'

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
       WASHINGTON — The head of the nation's nuclear weapons program told Congress on Tuesday that the national laboratories can operate "a smaller, safer, more secure" stockpile, but that scientists with increasingly rare skills should not be placed on the budget chopping block.
    U.S. nuclear weapons labs — including Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico — have just 21 scientists left on staff with experience in nuclear warhead design and testing, Tom D'Agostino, director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in testimony to a House subcommittee.
    "Our dedicated work force is the key to our future and success," D'Agostino told the panel. "Their expertise and competence are key elements of our nation's security, and we must provide them with the tools and facilities to achieve their mission."
    D'Agostino appeared before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Appropriations to outline his vision for what he described as a smaller and less expensive — but safer and more secure — weapons complex. He said the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, partly because of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has shrunk by 75 percent since the end of the Cold War.
    President Barack Obama has said a nuclear deterrent will remain important under his administration, but details of his proposed first-year budget for the NNSA have not been made public.
    Meanwhile, Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, the top Republican on the committee, noted that D'Agostino was endorsing a smaller nuclear footprint a day after Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced his country would bolster its own nuclear weapons program. The Russian defense minister, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, on Monday cited what he described as NATO's threat to Russia's energy supplies as a key reason.
    Frelinghuysen said that he didn't want to initiate "a new arms race," but that the news worried him.
    "We're making substantial investments here, and I'd like to make sure that we're erring on the side of our national interests," Frelinghuysen said. "Who knows what our adversaries are up to?"
    D'Agostino said he is confident in the U.S. nuclear arsenal's effectiveness. He said existing nuclear facilities allow for the production of as many as 100 nuclear warheads in a year if necessary.
    "If the country has to ramp up, we could," he assured the committee.
    Everet Beckner, a top NNSA defense administrator under former President George W. Bush, said the agency can trim costs and remain effective. But it won't be the same agency it is today.
    "You can't have it both ways," Beckner said. "You can't expect to shrink the complex and have it the way it was when you spent an extra billion dollars.
    "But you can get by with a little bit less of this and little bit less of that, and still have a safe, secure nuclear stockpile."
    However, like D'Agostino, Beckner said scientific expertise is not the place for shortcuts.
    "Nothing is more important for the long-term health of the program than to retain the outstanding people," he said, adding that they must be challenged if the government hopes to retain them.
    "It cannot be just busy work or routine meter-reading work," Beckner said.
    D'Agostino said there is "an urgent need to act now" to revamp the agency to help it best meet the unique and uncertain security needs of the 21st century. That includes moving forward with the new Chemical Metallurgy and Research facility at LANL.
    The existing 550,000-square-foot building, located in the lab's Technical Area 3, dates back to the early 1950s and is used to test and analyze plutonium and other nuclear materials. But safety problems, including a 1996 explosion, have plagued the facility during the past decade, and lab officials say it's been expensive to upgrade and maintain.
    The new building will offer "critical ... capabilities necessary not just to support our nation's stockpile but more to lay the path forward for nuclear security in the future," D'Agostino said. "Our investments in (the project are) both sound and based on analysis."
    He said it is frightening to contemplate what would happen if the federal government maintained the status quo within NNSA.
    "The short answer is we would reach a point where we would be unable to perform our nonproliferation, counterterrorism, nuclear forensics, emergency response and nuclear deterrent initiatives," D'Agostino said.

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