WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary on Wednesday established a task force headed by a leading industrialist to study the nation's nine national laboratories, with an eye toward the possibility of closing some of them.
"With the end of the Cold War and growing concerns about global economic competition, now is the time to plan how the department's laboratories can best help meet the energy, environmental, economic, scientific and defense needs of the future," O'Leary said at a press conference.
The energy secretary, who has shaken up her department's nuclear weapons bureaucracy by calling for investigations of radiation experiments, appeared to take special aim at the "big three" labs traditionally engaged in nuclear weapons research--all of which are important to California.
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is based in Livermore. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is administered by the University of California. And Sandia National Labs operate from Livermore and Albuquerque. The University of California system also administers a fourth national lab, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley.
O'Leary charged the task force with the responsibility of assessing whether the labs needlessly duplicate each other's efforts.
While saying that she is not certain that closing any of the labs is necessary, she said that the issue "is certainly one that (task force members) should be examining and making recommendations about." She selected Motorola chief executive Robert W. Galvin to lead the effort.
The nine national labs are owned by the department, which contracts with private concerns to run them. While the three major labs concentrate primarily on nuclear research, the network also does other energy and environmental research.
With annual budgets of more than $6 billion and employment rolls of more than 19,000 scientists and engineers, the facilities are a potent force both in the nation's economy and in the communities they occupy.
O'Leary's comments Wednesday mark the first time since the establishment of the Energy Department in 1977 that its secretary has spoken publicly about the possibility of shrinking the network of laboratories.
The move comes at a time when many of the labs, especially those that have specialized in nuclear weapons design, have been reshaping their staffs and their research agendas to reflect the declining importance of the Energy Department's military research.
For instance, all three of the labs engaged primarily in bomb design recently signed on to multimillion-dollar research programs in which they will cooperate with the nation's domestic auto makers in an effort to develop safer cars that meet higher emission standards.
Cooperative programs between the national labs and private industry are gaining new interest both from manufacturers and the Clinton Administration, which has been more active than its predecessors in using the powers of the federal government to meet the needs of American industry.
Other labs under examination are the Argonne National Lab in Argonne, Ill.; the Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, N.Y.; the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Ida.; Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Wash.