Sandia LabNews

Domenici upbeat on Sandia, budget, future, concerned about energy crisis

Senator’s colloquium gets appreciative, standing-room-only audience

Sen. Pete Domenici had only to walk down the aisle of Sandia’s Steve Schiff Auditorium Monday afternoon,Jan. 15, to get his first burst of applause from the overflow crowd of Sandia employees. Perhaps it was merely relief that he was back on his busy schedule and feeling good after spending the previous Friday night in the hospital for observation. Perhaps it was in gratitude for Domenici’s strong support for Sandia and the national labs. Whatever the reason, it set the tone for an upbeat, at times even boisterous, colloquium by the Republican senator from New Mexico. Domenici spoke with pride of “the very powerful budget bill” that has brought the highest-ever budget to DOE’s defense programs (and Sandia).

PETE DOMENICI makes a point at the colloquium.

He praised Sandia and its long-time leadership (“51years at Sandia! What a wonderful thing to say!”). He said he wanted to make sure Sandians were happy in their jobs and that morale is good. He pledged to help workaround an eleventh-hour-passed legislative measure to have even larger numbers of national labs employees take annual polygraph tests. He also called for massive new investments in infrastructure at the national labs. He praised Sandia’s future MESA facility for advancing cutting-edge micro systems and microelectronics. He pledged to keep pushing DOE to improve Sandia’s pension plan. He called Sandia’s work in establishing new spin-off companies and in creating cooperative research and development agreements with existing companies a “shining light.” And he spoke urgently of the new energy crisis and the need for straight talk to Americans about priorities, including the need to resume mining coal to reduce over-consumption of natural gas and the necessity of getting Americans to overcome their fears of nuclear power.

And he said he planned to work closely with Spencer Abraham, the new secretary of energy,and Gen. John Gordon, head of the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration within DOE, to help them carry out their responsibilities. “He [Gordon] will literally man-age the science-based stockpile stewardship pro-gram and the nuclear weapons program separately from the rest of DOE.”

And in answer to a question at the end, Domenici said he intended to run again for another six-year term as US senator in 2002.

Afterward, Labs Director C. Paul Robinson,who introduced Domenici at the colloquium as“our very good friend” and the prototype of a “uniter not a divider,” told local media that Domenici had put on a “terrific colloquium” and been “in rare form.”

Domenici himself said it had been “an exciting day.” He marveled that when he speaks to “all these serious Sandians” he gets more laughs than from any other audiences.

Some elaborations and additional points:

HIGH-POWERED DUO — Sen. Pete Domenici and Sandia President Paul Robinsonbrief local news media in the lobby of the Steve Schiff Auditorium followingDomenici’s Jan. 15 Sandia colloquium. -(Photo by Bill Doty)

Budget: “I am proud that we put out a very powerful budget bill, especially for science-based stockpile stewardship,” Domenici told the colloquium audience. “We ended up with a very good and energetic budget, the best we’ve had for Sandia for many years,” he added at the subsequent news briefing. “And we broke the $5 billion barrier for defense DOE work’ [for the whole nuclear weapons complex].

Pensions: He knows Sandia’s pension plan is not as good as that of the other two national weapons labs. “We’re not up to snuff on it. Weare pushing them [DOE] very hard. I’m going to say we are going to get that done. We’ve got to fix this too.” He noted that “we’ve fixed it a bit”—the pensions for retirees were increased on a sliding scale from 3 to 18 percent (those who retired in 1983 or earlier getting the largest increase) in late October (Lab News, Nov. 3), but he said he will continue to work on improvements that will affect current employees.

Polygraph tests: “We don’t need so many of you to get annual polygraph tests,” he said, to another round of applause. He said he is familiar with all the evidence about the problems with polygraphy. Nevertheless,a new legislative requirement expanding poly-graph tests at the national labs was added onto a popular amendment on another topic and passed with little notice in the last Congress. “We have to fix that in our own little way,” he said. “I hope we can put some commonsense into that issue very quickly. Let’s hope.”

Tax surpluses: The projected huge budget surpluses are real and provide new opportunities to pay down the Social Security debt, provide more defense funding, pay for Medicare and prescription drugs, and increase federal funding for education from the current 8 percent share to around 9 per-cent. “It [the projected surplus] is a brand new event, but a big one.”

National labs’ infrastructure: “When we seethe size of the surplus,” he said, “I’m for building the infrastructure of the United States laboratories quickly.” At the news conference he said he has talked with NNSA’s Gordon about the need for investment in new infrastructure at the labs. “He[Gordon] is convinced that there is a desperate need for a five-year program to replenish, rebuild,and modernize the infrastructure.”

Testing, recruiting: The continued absence of underground testing makes it difficult for weapons scientists and engineers to carry out their responsibilities, Domenici noted. “What everyone needs to understand is, that is not simple,” said Domenici. “We didn’t do [underground testing] for fun. So we need the best we can hire from the best in America, and we need to make sure they think they are doing important work.”

The new energy secretary: “Spence Abra-ham. . . I know a lot about him. He served on my Budget Committee. He was one of my trusted allies. He’s a quick learner. He wants to do things right. He’s not an expert on energy, but we’re all going to help. Also, he is going to get some wonderfully smart people to work for him. I think he’s going to be OK. I’ve already pledged to work with him.”

The new US energy crisis: “The country is in a serious energy crisis,” Domenici said. He described the current severe problems in California as a crisis in electricity generation and a con-sequence of too much demand for and reliance on natural gas. The utilities have been rocked by a9-times increase in the cost of their raw materials.

Domenici criticized Californians for wanting continued economic and population expansion while rejecting all new energy-generating sources.“They’re frightened to death of nuclear. What are they going to do for electricity? They don’t know who to blame. Somebody has got to do some-thing.”

Coal and nuclear energy: “It is time for straight talk,” said Domenici. “We’ve got to find ways to use more coal. We’ve got to change our fear of nuclear power. We need to tell people that it is safer than any others.” He noted that nuclear power reactors in the US are now functioning at their highest levels ever, “as safe as can be,” and they’re “finally generating profits.” The nation needs to consider building new nuclear power reactors, with new designs that are inherently safe, and some of the many proposed solutions to nuclear waste need to be implemented. “We’re just going to have to move full speed ahead. It is going to be exciting.”

Energy and the world: The poor countries of the world need new sources of energy as well.“We want the poor people of the world to become free,” but we also want them to gain “a glimpse and the reality of prosperity.” For that they need more energy. He raised the specter of China vastly increasing its energy production without new technology or environmental safe-guards “They will pollute the world to do it. They won’t care what we say.”

Sandia, industry, and pride: “When it comes to labs like Sandia, they do some startling things to help the private sector. . . . Sandia is so great that the great computing and electronics companies come to it” for technological assistance. “You’ve got to know, I am very proud of this laboratory.