Chapters 2-5 focused on evaluating the quality of S&E in connection with four different core capabilities of the NNSA laboratories. This chapter identifies and discusses major themes that cut across those capabilities.
As explained in Chapter 1, the focus of the committee was to assess the quality of the S&E foundations—the staff, facilities, planning, recruitment and retention of staff, and the work environment—capabilities that suggest whether the laboratories are poised for long-term success. Specific work was evaluated to assist the committee in that evaluation, and in the process it did observe an impressive range of excellent ongoing work at the three laboratories, giving it a very favorable impression of the current state of their S&E. In the judgment of the committee, no S&E quality issues were found that would prevent certification of the stockpile. Another important aspect of the quality of S&E within the context of the nuclear weapons mission—because of its complexity and the need for it to bridge successfully between state-of-the-art research and complex and reliable engineered systems—is the degree to which the work is appropriately connected and relevant. The committee found ample examples of productive communication, cooperation, and coordination across disciplines; between research and development and other programmatic activities; and within and among laboratories. Scientists, engineers, and managers with whom the committee interacted displayed a strong recognition that their work is interdependent and that cooperation across disciplines is essential to the nuclear weapons missions at the laboratories. Strong cooperative attitudes were seen across disciplines within laboratories and across laboratories. Such open interaction is generally essential to high-quality S&E in support of science-based stockpile stewardship and global security (nonproliferation).
The current favorable state of quality is, however, facing several stresses. Most of the findings and recommendations in this report, accordingly, deal more with forward-looking issues that might affect the future quality of S&E. Many of these forward-looking issues are similar or inter-related. For example, three of the findings (2.1, 4.7, and 5.3) concern the difficulty in operating and performing experiments. The remainder of this chapter summarizes those concerns that cut across multiple areas of the laboratories and which might be “leading indicators” of a decline in quality or a threat against maintaining quality. In order to preserve today’s highly productive situation, each of the laboratories and NNSA will need to successfully address the following cross-cutting challenges.
Compared to the years when nuclear testing was being conducted, science-based stockpile stewardship has necessitated important changes in the focus of work in all four of the areas examined by this study—weapons design, systems engineering, the science and engineering base, and modeling and simulation. That is because, although data collected during the testing years are still being exploited, there
is now an increased reliance on fundamental scientific understanding and computer simulations as replacements for the empirical information obtained from full-scale testing. Experimentation at less-than-full scale is still critical, maybe even more so, because it is essential for validating computer simulations and estimating their uncertainties. The coupling of simulation and data is necessary to the ability to certify the stockpile.
However, several of the committee’s teams heard laboratory staff express concern about the difficulty in obtaining relevant experimental data because of the excessive formality of operations, with no real benefits, which in at least some cases leads to multiple approval steps before an experiment can be run. These processes in turn lead to delays and extra costs; this is especially true for experiments that use radioactive or otherwise hazardous materials, which are often the key materials in nuclear warheads. There is a strong concern among S&E staff at all three laboratories that the amount of experimental work has declined and continues to decline.
Factors driving experimental costs and delays include a lack of trust, excessive duplicative oversight, formality of operations, and a culture of audit and risk avoidance with inadequate attention to the consequent risks to the S&E program. All experimental activities have inherent risk, which must be balanced against the benefits that derive from conducting the experiments if reasonable decisions are to be made. It is in the nation’s best interest to stabilize the conditions for safe, secure, cost-effective mission success. The risks inherent in doing an experiment need to be weighed against the benefits of doing the experiment and the associated risks to S&E capabilities if the experiment is not carried out.
Recommendation 6.1. DOE or NNSA, in conjunction with laboratory management, should review the overall system for assessing and mitigating safety risks and identify opportunities for savings and efficiencies, for example, from reducing redundant responsibilities. They should develop a methodology to assess both risks and benefits and should employ that methodology in ensuring safe and productive experimental work at the national security laboratories.
The recommended risk/benefit analysis process should be able to: (1) review and revise the determination of conditions under which proposed experiments are permitted to proceed (i.e., the current catalog of safety and other rules and requirements that need to be met); (2) guide individual decisions to conduct specific experiments; and (3) evaluate any and all new or proposed significant requirements placed upon experimental work in the future. The process should explicitly include the benefits of conducting an experiment and the mission risk associated with not conducting the experiment.
Congress might consider requesting annual updates on progress in implementing this recommendation, until such time as the methodology is sound and the implementation process is functional.
As noted in Chapter 4’s discussion of scientific facilities, the quality of infrastructure at the laboratories is uneven, ranging from world-leading to unsatisfactory. This concern pertains to more than just the science base. The deterioration of facilities reduces the productivity of scientists and engineers because their work can be interrupted or impeded by mundane tasks or repairs, and it will also have negative impacts on morale and the ability to recruit the best people. In extreme cases it can of course also lead to safety problems, damage of expensive equipment, or problems with the work quality.
The committee is also concerned about the possibility that major laboratory facilities can undercut the amount of attention and resources devoted to smaller-scale, less visible facilities. While the three laboratories maintain and operate world-leading major facilities such as DARHT, NIF, Z and petascale computing facilities, smaller facilities are also crucial for executing the mission, and they are an important component of the work environment that attracts new talent and retains experienced staff. Examples of smaller facilities include certain specialized capabilities for production of components of
nuclear weapons such as neutron generators, for plutonium processing and experimentation, for radiation hardened microelectronics and photonic related components, for beryllium parts fabrication, and many other facilities required for research in the physical sciences and engineering. (Specialized facilities for other disciplines are also required for the laboratories to execute their other missions.) The rising costs of building and operating large signature facilities could threaten the continued support of vital smaller facilities, particularly in periods of greatly constrained budgets.
Finding 6.1. World-leading signature experimental facilities are essential to fulfilling the nuclear weapons mission of the national security laboratories, but smaller experimental facilities are also essential to the ability of the laboratories to conduct their work and to attract, develop, and retain staff.
Recommendation 6.2. The laboratory directors, working with NNSA, should ensure a balance between small scientific facilities and the larger signature facilities at the laboratories appropriate for sustaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent and addressing related national security threats within a tight budget profile.
In general, the sort of strategic planning called for in this recommendation is not always apparent across the three laboratories. The committee noted that strategic planning could be improved for high-energy density science and radiation transport. The committee also noted that uncertainty and unpredictability in resources (especially funding, due in large part to forces beyond the control of the laboratories or NNSA) is a factor that impedes high-quality work.
All three laboratories maintain highly qualified, productive workforces. All three laboratories indicated that no significant problems have been encountered in hiring outstanding personnel over the past five years. Attrition rates are low—about 4 percent per year—and relatively steady.1 Those with whom the committee met are enthusiastic and apparently pleased with being at the laboratories.
However, the committee has some reasons for concern. It heard numerous, and widespread, complaints about deteriorating conditions at the laboratories. As in the first phase of this study, these focused primarily on infrastructure and a perceived increasing burden of rules, regulations, operational formality, constraints and restrictions, and administrative burdens. While this has not yet resulted in notable declines in recruitment and retention, the negative forces might have been offset by the state of the economy since 2008. Thus, an improving economy may produce better opportunities outside the laboratories and lead to more competition for workers and more departures.
The three laboratories appear to have taken aggressive approaches to replace retiring S&E personnel with high-quality hires, based on standard metrics such as prior academic performance and class standing. Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) has implemented strategies to anticipate impending demand by hiring and training on a more accelerated schedule. However, continuing budgetary uncertainties seem to be causing uneasiness at the laboratories about the prospects for continued aggressive hiring.
The laboratories are able to take advantage of robust postdoctoral programs to bring in new researchers with science backgrounds. On the engineering side, in which postdoctoral training is less common, new hires tend to enter the laboratories more directly. SNL also hires many staff at the masters level. In many cases, the laboratories are able to take advantage of strong ties with universities, and
1 National Research Council, Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories, The National Academies Press, 2013, p. 13.
especially with professors working in fields related to the laboratories’ activities, to attract well-qualified new hires.
Nonetheless, the laboratories are facing continuing workforce challenges. LANL, for example, has gone through two voluntary separation programs in the last four years. And the laboratories’ ability to access the expertise of retirees is constrained by limitations on contracts with individuals who have left the laboratories. In general the laboratories continue to invest in the staffing pipeline, but sustaining the human infrastructure for S&E excellence is continually challenging.
The committee notes some worrisome statistics in specific disciplines. As explained in Chapter 5, there is particular concern in core computer science areas, such as computer architecture, systems software, programming models, tools and the algorithms used in these systems. While there are some outstanding individuals in these areas within the laboratories, there were also signs of difficulty in recruiting and retention. Among laboratory scientists and engineers, these researchers are the most mobile, because they can easily find challenging and lucrative employment in industry—while their work is necessary to the NNSA mission, they have other good options. These researchers and engineers appear less likely to come to the laboratories and more likely to leave mid-career than other disciplines.