In a phone interview with the Los Alamos Monitor Tuesday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) discussed some recent successes in the Senate that could have both direct and indirect benefits for Los Alamos.
The fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has several gains for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), including an increase in funding for environmental cleanup from $185 million to $199 million. Heinrich anticipates that the additional funding – along with the reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) – will reinvigorate the stalled cleanup program.
“In terms of WIPP, the last time I spoke with the secretary, he assured me that would happen in December. And at that point a lot of the stuff that’s in Area G can start moving back down to the,” Heinrich said. “So there’s an additional $14 million for cleanup and a whole lot of progress once we get WIPP reopened.”
The Energy and Water Appropriations bill passed by the Senate last week also impacts LANL.
“The funding levels for everything from weapons activities to nonproliferation to laboratory cleanup and WIPP really bode well for the work that LANL will do over the next fiscal year,” Heinrich said.
The NDAA bill includes full funding for the nuclear deterrent Life Extension Program, another LANL program.
“Without developing a new nuclear weapon, this brings them up to speed so we know with 100 percent reliability that they are functional and safe and secure and reliable,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich discussed other lab related issues on the mind of Los Alamites, such as a joint letter from Heinrich other congressional representatives to National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lt. General Frank G. Klotz, urging him to consider workforce recruitment and retention, local small business procurement, technology transfer, regional university partnerships and Science, Technology, Engineering, Math education and charitable giving in the new Sandia contract.
Local officials have raised many of the same issues about the 2017 LANL contract and are also concerned that the Sandia contract will form a template for LANL’s.
“While I don’t think it will be a one for one relationship, we’re concerned as well that any of these contracts have a tendency to influence each other,” Heinrich said. “So we’re going to be very focused on making sure that Sandia, as a whole, comes out in a way that really works for the entire community and in creating a good, strong local ecosystem, because we want to take that progress and roll it into our efforts with the LANL contract.”
Issues affecting LANL subcontractors are also on Heinrich’s radar. He arranged a meeting between subcontractors and representatives from NNSA and the Supply Chain Management Center to discuss how local subcontractors could maximize the opportunity to secure contracts under that system.
According to Heinrich, the meeting facilitated several subcontractors securing contracts with not only LANL, but other NNSA sites.
Heinrich is also fighting to ensure that contracting language includes consideration for microbusinesses, subcontracting companies that have as few as four employees. Many northern New Mexico companies fall in that category. NNSA defines small businesses as under 500 employees.
“There is real value in being able to, say on a computer support contract, actually being able to call up a human being who is 15 minutes away, not halfway across the country,” Heinrich said.
Tech transfer from the national laboratories to the private sector also gets a boost in the NDAA.
New Mexico’s Joint Technology Office will be renamed the “Joint Directed Energy Program Office,” and its mission will change from coordinating basic research and development to transitioning directed energy technologies to private industry. The bill includes an additional $5 million in funding.
Heinrich explained the implications of the change.
“It simply includes language that makes it part of DOE’s culture to embrace this,” Heinrich said.
“We’ve seen this work in a couple of isolated cases now, these microlabs where you have a space outside the fence where people from inside the lab and outside the lab can work together without all of the security requirements and infrastructure that it takes to bring private sector inside the fence.
“And now that that’s been demonstrated to NNSA, this directs them to implement that where possible at other labs. So we’re going to take what works and hopefully grow it across the complex.”
Heinrich admitted that many issues regarding tech transfer – such as sabbaticals for lab employees to work on start-ups - are yet to be addressed. According to Heinrich, that requires a commitment from the top to changing the culture of the labs.
“One of the things all of this tech transfer that Sen. Udall and myself have been working on over the last few years is designed to chip away at a culture that has sort of been resistant to this, and instead send the message that this is going to become a central part of what the NNSA labs do, that we expect them – in addition to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, making sure it’d safe, secure and reliable and the other national security issues that we also have – that economic vitality is national security as well, and that we want them to engage in these relationships because we get a lot out of it as a country,” Heinrich said.
Another NDAA provision that removes the overhead burden for NNSA Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) will benefit both tech transfer and lab recruitment, something Heinrich anticipates will be a permanent fix.
“(The LDRD) is relegated to a fairly small part of the budget but it plays an outsized role in attracting the best and brightest talent to the labs,” Heinrich said. “And when you’re talking about pulling post docs and others from around the country, this program is really useful, according to all three of the NNSA directors for their recruitment.”
Heinrich pointed to Descartes Labs – a successful start-up company located in Los Alamos – as a beneficiary of LDRD research. Descartes’ core technology was developed in the LDRD program.
LANL and Sandia National Laboratories are currently double-taxed for the LDRD program.
“Something I fought really hard for is to reduce the amount of overhead that we charge on that program, because that will mean more dollars invested directly into this program that is working for tech transfer and working for the quality of the workforce at each of these labs,” Heinrich said.
Heinrich is also an advocate for renewable energy.
“The biggest gain – and it’s really one of the biggest things to happen for renewables ever – would have been the extension of the solar and wind tax credits at the end of last year,” Heinrich said.
With a Republican-led Senate, most people did not expect the credit to be renewed. Heinrich has been working for a year and a half with members from both sides of the aisle to pass that legislation.
“And at the end of last year, we were able to provide about seven years’ worth of certainty for wind and solar that really sort of bridged the gap to them being fully profitable in pretty much the entire country, as opposed to just the windiest and sunniest places,” Heinrich said.
“And I think that’s going to be a game changer. It really is sort of the bridge to the Clean Power Plan, and you’re reaching a tipping point where these are becoming the cheapest and most effective ways to produce power to the grid, writ large.”
Heinrich was disappointed that New Mexico did not renew state tax credits.
“This is a part of our economy that’s really growing, and it’s growing at a time when we have inherent challenges in other parts of the energy sector. So we really need these jobs at the moment,” Heinrich said.
Another potential gain for Los Alamos was a three-year extension of the Land and Water Conservation Act that passed both houses of Congress at the end of 2015. LWCA funding has not only benefited local parks, it was used to purchase the Valley Caldera National Preserve in 2000. Both Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) fought for reauthorization when the act expired in September 2015.
The Senate passed a permanent reauthorization as part of the energy bill, but the House bill did not include that.