New Mexico’s national labs could count on ‘St. Pete’

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, right, is shown with Siegfried S. Hecker, who served from 1986-97 as the fifth director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

Scientists and administrators at New Mexico’s two national laboratories christened former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici as “St. Pete.”

A fierce advocate for nuclear technologies and national security, Domenici tirelessly worked to ensure that Los Alamos National Laboratory, along with Sandia National Laboratories and the state’s military installations, received ample federal funds to further their missions.

“Like any patron saint who you have hanging off your rearview mirror trying to protect you in a car accident, he was trying to protect the entire nation and champion … technologies, facilities and jobs across the entire state,” said Gary Sanders, the Sandia lab’s former vice president of weapons engineering and chief engineer for nuclear weapons.

“He had incredible foresight that the world would go forward but would always have the turbulence of troubled times, and we needed to be prepared,” said Terry Wallace, principal associate director for global security at Los Alamos. Wallace cited North Korea’s advancing nuclear program as the type of challenge that Domenici knew the world would one day face.

The retired six-term Republican senator died Wednesday in Albuquerque. Friends, colleagues and associates remembered Domenici for his dedication to the labs, national security and the promise of nuclear energy.

In 2004, Domenici wrote a book on nuclear power, the subject that The New York Times called “the signature issue of his career.”

“In the 21st century, nuclear power will be a major contributor to global peace and a better quality of life for both the developed and developing world,” Domenici wrote in A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy. “My ultimate goal is that in the year 2045, 100 years after the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age, the world will evaluate the role played by nuclear technologies and conclude that their overall impact was strongly positive.”

Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos lab, said in an email Wednesday from South Korea that Domenici also helped establish new national science programs, such as the Human Genome Project.

“Without Senator Domenici,” Hecker said, “that project would not have been possible for many more years.”

He also spoke of working closely with Domenici to help contain nuclear dangers that arose when the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991. “He personally visited the Russian Los Alamos and worked tirelessly in efforts to help the Soviet Union transition in a peaceful and secure manner,” Hecker said.

Sanders said the Soviet Union was “awash” in plutonium and uranium during its dissolution.

“Russia had need for cash,” he said. “It would’ve been very easy for Russian officials to sell it to Iran, to North Korea, somebody.”

Domenici saw a need, he said, and spearheaded an effort to buy the radioactive material and pay Russian scientists to work in other pursuits to discourage them from migrating elsewhere.

“He was a big leader in nonproliferation,” Sanders said, “reducing the size of the stockpile, reducing the threats of nuclear proliferation around the world and then making sure here that whatever weapons we have left were upgraded so that there were fewer of them and they were safe and secure.”

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called Domenici’s contributions to the Los Alamos and Sandia labs — as well as the nation’s energy resources, the state’s economy and environmental protections — “incalculable.”

“The most important thing in his legislative agenda and record was the labs,” Richardson said in a telephone interview from London. “… I don’t want to put it this way, but he would forsake any other interest he had if the labs got properly funded.”

Richardson, a Democrat who served in Congress with Domenici, said he remembers the late lawmaker negotiating with him over lab funding issues in the late 1990s. He recalled Domenici offering to support his request for $5 million for an acequia project if Richardson could convince House Democrats to back about $1 billion for the labs.

“He said, ‘I’ll trade you $5 million for your [expletive] amendment — all right, for your weak amendment on the acequias — for the billion I need for the labs in Los Alamos and Sandia.’ ” Richardson said. “That’s a true story.”

Domenici helped facilitate the transition at Los Alamos to a for-profit management contract that led to a dramatic increase in federal funding of the lab.

“Senator Domenici was a person who said yes to whatever missions the lab wanted to happen,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group and a longtime critic of the lab and opponent of weapons programs.

Mellow and others have raised concerns about lab management issues dating back decades and throughout Domenici’s tenure.

In 1999, the lab became embroiled in a high-profile scandal after one of its nuclear engineers was fired and then accused by the federal government of working as a Chinese spy. After Wen Ho Lee was cleared of all but one of the 59 charges, he won a $1.6 million settlement.

In the years that followed, other security and safety concerns arose, including misplaced computer hard drives with secure information and millions of dollars in missing lab equipment, which led to several federal investigations and congressional hearings. The incidents raised questions about the University of California’s continued management of the lab and overall management practices there.

Still, Domenici continued to publicly express his support for the University of California and the lab.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement that Domenici’s decades of service to New Mexico left a lasting impact.

“He was especially focused on championing the unique national security assets we have in New Mexico,” Heinrich said, adding that Domenici fought for the workers who make the labs “indispensable to national security and the site of incredible scientific advances.”

Wallace and others said Domenici, who was born in Albuquerque, never forgot his roots.

“He had a national vision, but he was a New Mexican — he was a New Mexican to a core — from his early politic days in Albuquerque to the end,” Wallace said. “That man bled Zia flags if you cut him.”

Staff writer Rebecca Moss contributed to this report.

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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