Reading Room

Commission Announced to Review the Effectiveness of the National Laboratories

Thanks to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a nine-member "Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories" was established pursuant to the Fiscal Year 2014 "Omnibus" or Consolidated Appropriations Act. While the law falls short of creating a formal process to close or transition facilities similar to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process used to shutter or realign excess Defense Dept. sites, its language enables important steps in that direction.

Tri-Valley CAREs supports a BRAC-like process for the Dept. of Energy (DOE) and its nuclear weapons labs in particular, and will press the new Commission to take full advantage of the broad scope of its authority to recommend management, mission and structural changes in the national energy laboratory system.

Specifically, the Commission is charged with examining all seventeen Dept. of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration labs, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the Sandia, Livermore site, to ensure that their missions are not redundant, that they align with departmental priorities, and that they are appropriately sized to accomplish those priorities. Further, the law tasks the Commission with evaluating the labs' governance model and determining whether there are opportunities for "consolidation and realignment," which is a distinctly BRAC-like term.

On May 20, 2014, Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz announced the membership of the Commission. The Secretary's choices were made from nominations submitted to him by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The Commission will be co-chaired by Jared Cohon and T.J. Glauthier. Cohon is President Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University and Glauthier is a former Deputy Secretary at DOE. Cherry Murray, a former Associate Director for Science and Technology at LLNL, has also been named to the Commission. Overall, the Commissioners include a few fresh faces and a number of people who regularly turn up on advisory panels, including former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve. (See the DOE press release for the full list).

This is where a grassroots group like Tri-Valley CAREs comes into play. The question is not whether the Commissioners have the necessary scientific and managerial expertise to carry out their assignment, they do. Rather, it is whether they will be sufficiently bold, courageous and innovative to make a difference. In a word, will they be leaders or merely tweak the status quo before going to their next assignment? It falls to "watchdogs" like us to hold their feet to the fire and keep them accountable.

We plan to meet with the Commissioners and will press them to hold public hearings and interact with a wide array of stakeholders with diverse viewpoints as part of their decision-making process. We understand from conversations with congressional staff that the Commission will roll out recommendations in two phases, with their strategic review of the laboratory system due February 1, 2015 and their recommendations on the thornier management and realignment and consolidation issues coming later in the year.

On the plus side, the Commission's findings and recommendations could focus national attention on a BRAC-like process for DOE labs. In this regard, we note that the DOE Inspector General, Gregory Friedman (pictured below with Tri-Valley CAREs' Staff Attorney Scott Yundt) has repeatedly called for a BRAC-like process to analyze, realign, and consolidate the DOE national labs in order to avoid their continued mismanagement and excessive waste.

While waste and redundancy may permeate the DOE lab complex, LLNL certainly rises to the top of any list of facilities ripe for realignment. LLNL shares an oversized and outdated Cold War weapons design mission with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Moreover, LLNL has failed security tests and lost its authorization to house bomb usable quantities of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, which means its ability to compete Cold War-style with Los Alamos is severely diminished.

Tri-Valley CAREs advocates a major change in mission away from nuclear weapons R&D for both labs. Specifically, as the neighbors of Livermore Lab, we have long recommended that it be taken entirely out of the nuclear weapons complex and re-missioned as an unclassified "green lab," devoted to civilian science activities. We will be advocating this and other 21st Century realignment opportunities to the Commission.

It is our hope that the Commission will illuminate the glaring problems that exist throughout the DOE laboratory system and recommend practical, unbiased and far-reaching solutions. But, we have seen past federal advisory panels formed with the best of intentions issue only limited recommendations that are then never implemented. This Commission is being given a broad mandate and a fresh start by Congress. Will it live up to its potential?

It is Tri-Valley CAREs' goal to ensure that the Commission and its recommendations receive the amplification and public attention they deserve. If the recommendations are courageous, we will laud them and work diligently for their implementation. If they are timid or wrongheaded, we will likewise make certain that sad truth is spoken. Which will it be? Stay tuned.