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"Forget the Rest" blog

Declining Federal Oversight at Los Alamos, Increasing Production Incentives: A Dangerous Divergence

Presentation to the Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB), 3/22/06, Los Alamos, NM

By Greg Mello

We have come here tonight because all is not well at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  You might expect me to say that.  It’s certainly always been true, even in the lab's halcyon days –  which these are assuredly not.  Tonight I am speaking not of the ordinary and historic set of mission problems, culture problems, and management problems, but of something more – something new. 

What I think I am seeing is declining federal oversight – declining in quantity, quality, and effect – along with a change of LANL’s mission toward a greater emphasis on nuclear component (especially plutonium) manufacturing, enormous new revenue and fee incentives and a new set of private contractors awarded what may become one of the world’s largest no-bid contracts. 

Looking with a wider-angle lens I see markedly increased corruption across government and a near-complete failure of Congress to rise to the constitutional and fiscal challenges we face today.  To whom can DNFSB turn if its advice is not heeded?  I therefore fear for Los Alamos. 

Corporatively, extra prudence is advised under these circumstances.  Individually, safety will not be possible to maintain without extra diligence and quite possibly brave acts of conscience.

In August of 2005, I visited the Los Alamos Site Office (LASO) of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  There I saw evidence of what I had been hearing about for months: low morale.  Trash and furniture piled in the hallways, people doubled up in offices, staff getting moved here and there.  Subsequently morale has gotten worse. 

In my opinion (and I have some experience at this) a new low of public openness has been reached, in which not one single question I have posed has been answered by LASO in a six-month period, despite what must be a dozen telephone calls.  Once, one LASO employee was polite and helpful to my colleague Damon, to whom I have been delegating most of these generally fruitless calls. 

I now hear about long-time experienced LASO staff leaving, and about a climate of fear.  I hear that some LASO employees believe they could be fired if they talk to the public or to me, or suspended for a week if they have an unauthorized conversation with headquarters.  I am hearing that some people want to quit.  Given the documented shortages of skilled oversight personnel at LASO documented at LASO by the DNFSB, I am very concerned.

I have seen the LASO Manager fail to respond at all to most of the recommendations of the hard-working local citizen advisory board (CAB) as well as to their long-standing requests for information.  I have heard LASO staff repeatedly tell the CAB they don’t have the pertinent information because the information in question lies with LANL only. I am sure this quite accurate, and it worried me.

Then we come to the LASO “strategic pause.”  This pause in most federal oversight, which has been of concern by DNFSB, was explained to the CAB by LASO’s Bernie Pleau as being necessary in part because of the large amount of money riding on the new contract evaluations. 

Then we come to descriptions of normative oversight being used by cognizant NNSA managers:

Wilmot reminded folks of his vision to be able to one day manage the site office and the contractor from the golf course via his blackberry…We will be less risk averse and there will be less micro-management in our oversight, Wilmot said.  We will be holding lab line management accountable letting them focus on how they will get the work done and meet goals. This will require heavy reliance on the LANS contractor assurance model, he added. “I will lead the team to define our oversight and to provide the contract management tools,” Wilmot said….

Transforming the weapons complex around RRW was a major theme of NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks’ message to Los Alamos Site Office employees during his visit February 7th….“Getting off to the right start is crucial,” Brooks said.  He expressed the desire to see the lab taking on more of the getting things done right mode and NNSA standing back and seeing that they do. He felt all the talk about risk aversity may be related to the press and political pressure and thinks headquarters should let the sites do their job and for the sites to let him know that things are working okay.  He said Headquarters would fend off the issues and concerns that come from the Hill and independent advisory organizations.[1]

If this is the language used in public communication, I wonder what is said in meetings in the Administrator’s office.

The new “contractor assurance model” is not something I welcome.  I prefer the foxes guarding from outside the hen house.  As I recall, the NNSA nuclear weapons program is already about 96% privatized.  The same small set of contractors operates and subcontracts at most of the NNSA facilities.  The NNSA is even letting some of these companies build capital projects at the nuclear weapons plants, putting them into the landlord business. Many of these companies are heavy political donors, raising a further temptation to turn to political solutions to fix problems.

Some, like Bechtel and the Washington Group, have fattened their bottom lines considerably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Whatever you think about those wars, it has become clear that the contractor culture involved in them is one of the largest financial scandals in human history. [2]

The LANL contract could last up to 20 years without re-bidding and is therefore worth perhaps $30 billion in today’s dollars.  It is a princely sum by any standard.  Management will be highly incentivized to fulfill the key missions, which include producing plutonium “pits” in the quantities NNSA specifies.  Los Alamos National Security (LANS) is also carefully indemnified in the contract against liabilities arising from its nuclear materials operations and nuclear waste disposal activities. 

This brings us to the change of mission at LANL of which Mr. Brooks was speaking.  On November 7, Congress assigned LANL the job of making plutonium pits for the stockpile, including both W88 pits and a new type of pit, to be used in the family of warheads called “Reliable Replacement Warheads”or RRWs. 

As senior NNSA officials have told me, LANL’s pit production mission is absolutely “pivotal” to the production of new kinds of nuclear weapons, which is to say, to the RRW.  To the traditional concerns about safety at LANL we must now add the addition of a highly-incentivized production culture.

LANL was shut down by NNSA and its own management for several months beginning on July 16, 2004.  According to NNSA,

While much of the public attention to events leading to the laboratory stand down focused on the supposedly missing classified media, we in NNSA felt that inattention to safety procedures at the laboratory presented a greater problem. Together they led us to believe that a culture of noncompliance existed within the laboratory. A careful review of leading indicators for operations of hazardous facilities, that is, events that are precursors to low probability-high consequence accidents, suggested that laboratory performance had been declining. Some employees simply were not complying with regulations or working with regulatory agencies or bodies, including NNSA and the rest of the Department of Energy. It is this culture that we, and the laboratory’s senior managers, are trying to reverse. [3]

Further, During the assessments nearly 2500 findings and substantive observations were identified throughout the laboratory; about 400 of them had to be resolved before resumption was allowed. The rest of the findings will be addressed by implementing fully resourced plans that may take two to three years to complete. [4]

NNSA describes the efforts to resume LANL operations as “truly epochal” and notes that

…one of our challenges is to ensure that the laboratory follows through on the hundreds of corrective actions that remain to be addressed.  Many of the issues uncovered during the resumption process had been identified in previous reviews conducted during the past 10 years. Corrective Action Plans from these reviews were prepared but never fully implemented. [5]

What is the status of those “fully resourced” plans to address what are apparently 2000+ findings regarding the safety and security culture at LANL?  The Board will be aware that in every NNSA environmental analysis, the assumption is made that all safety regulations have been followed. Since this isn’t always the case, how shall we evaluate the environmental impact, and risk of “low probability-high consequence accidents” mentioned by NNSA?  What are these accident scenarios, anyway?

This would normally be the place to review all the DNFSB’s findings and concerns about LANL.  I see no need to do that.  You know your own concerns. I wish to particularly note, however, the potential seriousness and depth of the disagreement between DNFSB and NNSA over the necessity of safety-class ventilation (and I believe monitoring) equipment for plutonium handling, and the two safety divergent paradigms represented by these differing views.  These two paradigms lead to very different approaches to the operation and construction of new buildings, such as the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building.

This is especially important given the seismic situation at the LANL site, which is capable of very large ground accelerations, in excess of 1 gravity in the vertical direction, and of ground rupture both over known faults and not.  

This exceeds the time allotted for public comment and in conclusion I wish you the greatest diligence and success in your mission.

[1] LASO, “The Communique,” March 13, 2006 – Volume 1, Issue 2.

[2]Iraq was awash in cash,” Guardian Unlimited, 3/20/06.

[3] Testimony of Jerry Paul, Principal Deputy NNSA Administrator, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, May 5, 2005.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

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