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Why Dumping the DOE's Key Missions Is a Bad Idea

by Burton Richter

There is much talk in Congress these days of eliminating the Department of Energy. The Republican freshmen have studied it; the House Budget Committee recommended it; Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has endorsed the idea. Those favoring elimination look on DOE as an unneeded hodgepodge of functions and facilities. They are simply wrong.

As director of a DOE-funded science laboratory, I know the department's management is not what one might hope for. But that calls for repairs, not demolition. The DOE's core missions are both necessary and important; they can be carried out more effectively together than separately. These missions are national security, the environment, energy, and science and technology. All will continue to be important for the long term.

The National Security Mission. The national security mission is much changed from the days of the Cold War, when the over-riding concern was building more and better nuclear weapons. Now our national priorities are to reduce the number of bombs, to maintain the remainder safely, and to control their proliferation. Our need for new weapons has dropped to nearly zero. But some of the facilities must remain to maintain this reduced stockpile and to continue to dismantle weapons as required by arms-limitation treaties.

Originally, the weapons labs designed the bombs and developed the technology to build, test, and store them safely. Now the United States is about to enter negotiations aimed at ending nuclear weapons testing. Without testing, the remaining stockpile will have to be kept functional through science and reengineering studies.

The Environmental Mission. This mission grew out of DOE's old national security mission. During the arms race, production was the over-riding goal and understanding of the environmental consequences was minimal. The attitude was build now and fix the environmental problem later. We are left with a legacy of badly contaminated and in some cases dangerous sites. The cleanup could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and the program is now the largest component of the DOE's budget (about $7 billion out of $17 billion). The environmental problem will be with us for decades, and new, more cost-effective technologies are needed to get the job done.

The Energy Mission. DOE's role here is more complicated because there is no stable consensus. The mission, in principle, is simple: the department should foster the development of technologies to maintain a secure U.S. energy supply while protecting the global environment. It is easy to say, but not to interpret.

Such efforts depend in part on long-term economic forecasting, a notoriously inaccurate field. After the first OPEC embargo, oil prices were expected to rise continuously. DOE embarked on such programs as coal gasification, coal liquefaction, and oil-shale extraction. When oil prices did not soar, these efforts were dropped and are now regarded as failures.

For the long term, it is obvious that adding fossil fuel emissions from the rapidly growing underdeveloped world to those of the developed world is rolling the dice on our future. Global warming from increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is the almost certain consequence. Only government can do the necessary science and develop the new technologies needed for the future. Industry cannot, for the economic payoffs are beyond its time horizon.

The Science and Technology Mission. This function is central to the execution of the DOE's other duties. It is carried out in a complex of laboratories that effectively form the brain of the DOE and is linked to universities and private research centers. These DOE labs have developed unique expertise in physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, engineering, advanced computing, and so on. They supply the essential tools for thousands of private scientists. My own laboratory has more than 1,800 scientists from universities, government labs, and industry who use our accelerator and X-ray sources for research in fields ranging from biology to high-energy physics.

All this argues against breaking up the department. One can easily say the weapons program could be moved to the Defense Department, but since the same expertise is required to clean up nuclear waste, how would the environmental mission be accomplished? Similarly, handing the cleanup program to the Environmental Protection Agency would leave it without the science and engineering expertise required to develop new technologies. It would also result in the EPA regulators regulating themselves_a bad idea.

Handing the DOE's science mission to the National Science Foundation would fundamentally change the NSF into an organization that builds and operates large-scale facilities. Creating a Department of Science makes somewhat more sense, but would still be an error, for as industry has discovered, research and development must be aligned with a central mission if they are to be effective.

The DOE can certainly be made more efficient. The Naval Petroleum Reserve, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and the Power Marketing Administration all lie outside its core missions; some or all could certainly be sold off or eliminated. But the four core missions are both long-term and important to the nation. In this case, the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.

Burton Richter is director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the APS Past president. This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin