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Facebook: Los Alamos Study Group; Twitter: @TrishABQ; Blog: Forget the Rest

November 30, 2014

Bulletin #197: Moment of truth for Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS)?

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  1. Our end-of-year fundraising drive is underway; please help if you can.
  2. Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS): moment of truth?
  3. Ban the bomb, now

Dear friends –

  1. Our end-of-year fundraising drive is underway; please help if you can.

A Study Group prospectus in letter form was included with Bulletin 196 and is also here  We hope it resonates with you.  If it does, we also hope you will be motivated to reach out to those of your friends who might want to help further our disarmament work financially and be in a position to do so.

To those who have already helped – thank you.

In the New Mexico communities we know best, the barriers between social classes are increasing to say the least.  Most of our friends’ household economies are precarious.  The material power to make things happen in the world is ever more concentrated in the upper classes, most members of which are unaware of their latent power, of how pivotal their contributions are or could be.  How could any of us understand that – or really anything – without wise friends?  If you can engage in peer-to-peer fundraising on behalf of this organization, it could be very important.  If you need help you know how to find us.

  1. Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS): moment of truth?

LANS, as readers will know, is the management and operating (M&O) contractor running Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the 2006 LANS contract obligated DOE to pay LANS up to $36.6 billion (B) for running LANL for the term of its current contract, including up to $1.6 B in management fees.

LANS is a privately-held site-specific partnership of Bechtel, AECOM (which bought URS, which bought WGI – it’s a long story), B&W, and the University of California.  LANS has no assets invested or at risk at LANL, is indemnified against losses, and is exempted from enforcement of unallowable costs, so this is a pretty sweet deal.  It is one of the largest government contracts in the world.

The chief executive of LANS, Dr. Charles McMillan, is the director of LANL and also the president of its board, with the marketing and financial responsibility to shareholders that implies.  All LANL staff report to Dr. McMillan – LANL has no federal employees.  On matters relating to the U.S. nuclear stockpile, Dr. McMillan can and annually does report directly to the President of the United States, informing him of what Dr. McMillan believes to be wise in terms of future taxpayer investments (in his company).

The DOE, through its semiautonomous sub-agency the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), owns the LANL site and cleans up its waste, but LANS runs it.  There are only a few dozen federal civil servants in Los Alamos.  Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC (LLNS), which runs Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), is composed of the LANS corporate partners plus Battelle.  The boards of the two corporations are mostly the same people and senior managers move easily from one lab to the other.  LANS/LLNS is now tremendously powerful, for a combination of obvious and subtle reasons.[1]

As explained in excellent articles in the New Mexican (From LANL to Leak”), summarized (up to yesterday) here, LANS, in violation of elementary chemical safety, textbook hazardous waste guidelines, and its own specific published warnings, illegally created and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), over many months, hazardous transuranic (TRU) waste containing thousands of pounds of substances incompatible with pH 0 nitric acid and nitrate salts.  These substances were organic cat litter (mostly made of wheat, wheat mill wastes, and flour), sodium polyacrylate, triethanolamine, and citric acid.

Executive bonuses, corporate fees, and continuation of the massive LANS contract itself were in part contingent upon timely completion of this waste campaign (the “Framework Agreement”), which was itself a scaled-down piece of the larger cleanup of the Consent Order, which was just part of (what will never be) a fence-to-fence cleanup of the site.  To complete the terms of the “Framework Agreement,” corners upon corners were cut.  This particular accident is one result.

At WIPP, on February 14, one of the drums LANS mixed got very hot and burst open, creating what was apparently a flare or deflagration in the room and contaminating most of the mine with radionuclides.  The final bill to the taxpayer, assuming WIPP eventually reopens, is unknown but will be at least several hundred million dollars.  If WIPP does not reopen the cost of establishing a new disposal site would be, at a minimum, several billion dollars.

Inexplicably no one has ever sampled the burst drum, though samples taken near the drum in late May are consistent with combustion of the LANS-created waste in the drum.  No one seems to want to know more.  Since May, no one has returned to the scene.  No little off-the-shelf drones – disposable at the price – have been bought and flown.  No sampling boom has been deployed.  DOE has not issued its accident report.  Although LANS and DOE have admitted serious violations of law, and others can be inferred, no fines or penalties have been issued by DOE or the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).  Despite the fiasco, DOE is keeping LANS as the cleanup contractor for now while DOE reorganizes its bureaucratic boxes.

Meanwhile DOE and NMED are both launching additional investigations – but not at WIPP.  Not with real data.  The problem with obtaining forensic samples isn't the safety of the situation, which is not worse than many other jobs.  DOE and its overpaid labs could easily take those samples safely.  But nobody in charge actually wants the answers they say they need.  As we know from conversations in Washington, many powerful people do not want LANS blamed.

Now, here’s the kicker: over the next few weeks DOE and NNSA will complete their annual evaluation of LANS.  (The criteria to be used, vague as they are, are here.) Will DOE recommend extending the LANS award term?  What profit will be allowed?  It is, or ought to be, a real moment of truth for LANS, as we have explained.  But will it be?

Another test will come soon in the annual DOE budget request to Congress, to be unveiled on the first Monday in February but mostly finished by now.  Will the Administration reward LANL financially for another massive failure – beyond, that is, leading government astray for a decade about the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research and Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), a mid-9-digit waste of money and all the “minor” 8-digit failures along the way?

Will LANS be fined, or be made to bear any part of the costs it has incurred?  To make a difference any fines will need to be many millions of dollars and they will need to come from LANS itself, not be passed on to DOE and the taxpayers via extra appropriations.  Will Dr. McMillan, who is responsible for this mess, keep his job?

If LANS comes through this storm unscathed as it now appears it will, its political power, nationally and in New Mexico, will grow.  In that case – watch out.  It’s a real test of integrity for DOE, Congress, the White House, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), and NMED.

Our prescriptions for LANL and LLNL are meanwhile summarized here.  To those in government who have read them – thank you for that call – please carry on and be encouraged.

  1. Ban the bomb, now

New Mexico is an exceedingly strange place to live and work.  Virtually all the surviving institutions of civil society – which are fewer and less civil all the time – are severely distorted by our officially-unquestioned loyalty to weapons of mass destruction and the institutions which promote them.

Our situation has deteriorated in recent years.  We’re a borderland no longer, if such a view was itself not highly optimistic in the 1990s when it was proposed.  In any case New Mexico has been conquered, again.  We live and work in an occupied state, behind a nuclear curtain, underground.

“Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century.  They cannot be justified.  They deserve condemnation.”  So said a Vatican representative to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly in 1997.

New Mexicans understand this incompatibility very well.  Our economy and society are increasingly organized around what the Nuremberg Tribunal called “crimes against peace.”  The result has been enduring, deepening poverty and rising inequality, social violence, and a politics which is explicitly organized around the economic indispensability of weapons of mass destruction.  That implies, as you must also notice, the dispensability of human beings.  That’s not just incompatible with the peace we seek – it’s the opposite.

We don’t just live with exterminism in New Mexico, we elevate it to a normative principle – and then we apply it, little by little, to our own communities.  To those far away this will seem abstract, or exaggerated.  To us it is neither.  Living with the bomb means that many of our neighbors will die from its social and political fallout. 

Our office is in Albuquerque, which hosts as many or more nuclear weapons than any other place on the planet, as well as the best-funded nuclear weapons lab in the world (by a hair, over Los Alamos; no other one is close).  V.B. Price calls our town the “city at the end of the world,” which is apt.  Meanwhile quaint Santa Fe, a few miles north and in the shadow of almost-as-huge LANL, is known as a tourist mecca – but its tourism income is dwarfed by a tsunami of nuclear weapons money that has all but overwhelmed and washed away its once-charming culture and politics.

Meanwhile we have now entered a new era in human and planetary history, an era of converging, enormous crises that threaten not just human civilization but also human existence and the web of life itself.  We stand on, or rather are driving toward, the precipice of runaway climate change and mass extinction.

The absolute destruction threatened as a matter of policy by state-sponsored nuclear terrorism is diametrically opposed to the reverence for life we need today.  We need that reverence and care in just the same that a carpenter needs a hammer or a gardener needs a hoe, or a hiker in the desert needs water.

We can, and we should, therefore ban the bomb.  It is quite a lot simpler than it seems.  We’ll return to this subject next time.

Best wishes to all,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

[1]For dated but useful background see “Competition - or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Some Questions from New Mexico,” May 30, 2006 and “About the LANS partners,” Jan 18, 2006.  Since 2006 the power of the nuclear contractors has only grown.

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