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"Forget the Rest" blog


May 30 ,2014

Dear colleagues --

It's possible a "teachable moment" is at hand regarding the NNSA labs -- a highly useful moment for those who seek serious downsizing and reform, both of which are badly needed.

Cutting to the chase, it seems LANL made serious mistakes recently and, by them, is responsible for shutting down WIPP and for various other consequences, with no clear end of problems or maximum cost in sight.  Details are linked below.

There is no question in my mind that a disconnected corporate LANL management style and culture created this problem, directly or indirectly.  That hands-off style is expressed in LANS' decision to shove the work in question into a subcontract, which should never have been done.

The problems and the bad press are likely to continue for some time.  DOE's audiences are largely inured to bad press -- today's Weapons Complex Monitor is chock-a-block with program failures, which seem tediously familiar -- but this is much worse than usual.

This latest disaster comes on top of the chronic (and pretty severe) problems at LANL in nuclear materials management: 

  • LANL's tritium facility has been shut down for 4 years with no end in sight;
  • LANL's plutonium facility (PF-4) has been partially shut down for nearly a year; now LANL wants to restart criticality-sensitive operations without undertaking the appropriate criticality studies or having a solid criticality safety team;
  • PF-4 has had (and may still have) seismic insufficiencies, the full extent of which and what to do about them we still do not know after all these years. DNFSB tells us upgrades are feasible and relatively inexpensive, but we still do not know the scope or cost or schedule.

Meanwhile LANL cannot answer even basic questions about the infrastructure requirements of pit production, let alone explain how a downsized pit mission would affect those requirements in concrete terms.  LANL's security upgrade project was late and over budget.  Its CMRR project wasted one-half billion dollars and a decade.  Other LANL nuclear construction projects have also gone over budget -- including RLUOB, which is not even finished and seems to not have had a clear mission for its laboratories.  LANL's story about its current pit production capacity and how it might be increased varies from year to year and decade to decade.

Clearly LANL's production capacity is now zero, from its own mismanagement.

What is new is that LANL seems to have incurred huge costs, as yet uncapped, for another DOE site that serves the whole weapons complex past and present, apparently by choosing the wrong kitty litter or neutralizing compound or both -- or else by making the mistake of subcontracting out this decision, without proper supervision and communication.

I mean, what's the point of subcontracting if you can't wash your hands of the problem?  Any way you look at it, it comes back to LANL.

I think this is a big, rare political opportunity which I hope you can act upon.  We will help however we can.

The opportunity at hand comes from both chronic and acute problems.

First, we have longstanding criticality safety and seismic concerns: Federal Safety Board Cautions DOE on LANL Plutonium Facility, May 20, 2014.

Now comes this new problem, described here as best as we can at this time: Bulletin #190: Swarm of issues plagues LANL plutonium operations (Part I), May 28, 2014.  (Scroll down to number 3).

Last night, the Santa Fe New Mexican zeroed in on LANL's responsibility: "Emails: LANL ignored warnings about chemical mix," May 29.

Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group, said the revelations in the document are a testament to the breakdown in oversight of a segment of the government that has become largely privatized. He blamed Los Alamos National Security LLC, which manages and operates LANL, for the lapse in scrutiny.  "LANS needs to step up and say, ‘We screwed up. We should have supervised this better,’” Mello said.
The Weapons Complex Monitor also emphasized LANL's role this afternoon ("Newly Uncovered Changes in LANL Processes Examined in WIPP Probe," May 30).

As if to confirm LANL's chronic problems with criticality safety, the DNFSB Weekly Site Report of 4/25/14 reports this:
Plutonium Facility–Criticality Safety: Facility personnel performing a confirmatory neutron measurement on a standard waste box (SWB) identified that the measured value exceeded the limits specified by the criticality safety evaluation by a factor of nearly two. The measured value also exceeded the combined, individual measured values of the items inside the SWB by a factor of nearly four. Workers took the correct immediate actions to secure the area, back off, and make notifications. During a critique, facility personnel questioned the adequacy of the calibration of the equipment and agreed to reconvene to determine a path forward for confirming the contents of the SWB. The Site Representatives note that critique personnel did not bring or review as part of the critique the calibration procedure, the procedure for assaying the waste, or the procedure for loading the SWB.
As it turns out, this scare was due to some unusual isotopes plus some calibration problems, so I don't want to emphasize it too much.  Let it serve as a reminder of what could happen, and what has happened before.

The plutonium facility is not the only LANL facility handling special nuclear materials with deep problems.  In the DNFSB Weekly Site Report of 5/2/14 we learn of the following.
Weapons Engineering Test Facility (WETF): This week, WETF personnel completed the 30-day surveillance associated with the PISA (see 4/11/14 weekly) on the oxygen monitoring system (OMS) and observed continued problems with the system. WETF personnel now believe there are problems with the recently installed new digital modules and are working with the vendor to develop a path forward. The OMS system has been inoperable since November 2013. WETF personnel continue to evolve their solutions without the aid of systematic root cause methodology. As a result of this week’s failed surveillance, the team leader delayed the start of the laboratory readiness assessment that was scheduled to commence next Monday for at least 45 days. WETF has not operated since 2010 and operations are necessary to reduce the risk associated with a large inventory of legacy tritium-containing items. WETF personnel also continued to resolve field office concerns with hydraulic calculations performed in response to a PISA on the fire suppression system (see 4/25/14 weekly). The facility continues in the fourth week of 24-hour fire watches performed hourly.

Reform could take different forms, with some common elements.

Reform could take a number of forms, as we've written before.  That is not my main subject here, but a few words are in order.

I do not think any reform whatsoever will be effective unless and until the budgets of the physics labs in particular are substantially decreased.  I believe they should be decreased by about half, if we assume the present stockpile.  That may or may not mean closing Livermore, which has physical and intellectual assets important to the country but also a large overhead cost.  The physics labs are sized for the Cold War, which is the origin of many of their problems today.  Congress seems to be really struggling to keep them huge.  My advice: don't.  The demographic problem, the recruitment and retention problem -- all are made so much simpler if the assumption of laboratory giantism is relaxed.

I am not saying "cut by half" as some kind of bargaining position or random remark.  Like others we know, most of whom can't be named here, "half" is my educated guess as to the number of staff actually needed.  If those staff were federal, or if they were paid less, the budget cut would be greater than one half. Lab scientists should not be paid more than cabinet secretaries, and thousands of them are.  The labs will never be manageable under this condition.  In addition to cutting back on less useful work, it will be impossible to get honest laboratories, whose management and staff are motivated by national service and a love of science without a) paying people less, and b) protecting their jobs.

The way we do that in this country is called "civil service" and it works very well at government laboratories.  The social contract with workers should be focused on national service, reduction of global danger, science, job security, and intellectual freedom -- not on getting rich, which is a big part of what we have right now.  That also means offering buyouts for early retirees, and/or subsidies to enter new, nationally-desirable careers for some who may be persuaded to leave and subsequently contribute in that way.  Regional career-shifting subsidies of this nature would create more local economic benefit than does the present fully "Soviet" model.

I also don't think it will be possible to manage the nuclear weapons complex or its labs successfully without a commitment to gradual disarmament.  A mission of nuclear weapons "forever" (quoting Earl Whiteman of the old Albuquerque office) leads to an unmanageable weapons complex.  Any large enterprise, to be stable and relatively problem-free, has got to at least have a mission that aligns with common morality and international law.

By "unmanageable" I mean there will be shutdowns, large cost overruns, scandals, or worse.  That is exactly what we have.

I am saying that the nuclear weapons complex needs some kind of downward glide path or it will sooner or later crash and burn.

There are other elements of any successful reform that could be mentioned.  It's almost too obvious to say, but the old-timers and nuclear chickenhawks who want to cut back on safety need to understand that cutting back on safety leads to second-rate institutions and poor standards throughout, with lousy internal cultures and it leads, as we see now, to shutdowns.  So some of these Cold War nostalgists need to wake up and smell the plutonium.

I certainly hope the White House encourages NNSA to not award LANS with an extra contract year, and I hope fee is cut almost entirely at all three labs, as it was in the golden age we hear so much about.  Pension fund reform could be sought now.  But let's not make a catalog here.

Reform has not gone all that well, over the past 25 years.

Secretary Watkins tried to reform the weapons complex and very partially succeeded.  Secretary O'Leary tried and partly succeeded as well.  Science Committee Chairman George Brown (D-Riverside) tried.  But with the enshrinement of the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship program among the six "Safeguards" the labs negotiated as a price for acquiescence to the CTBT, laboratory budgets, programs, and power grew throughout the late 1990s.  That growth was only loosely connected to the weapons mission.  In my opinion this loss of focus harmed these institutions, as we tried to warn at the time.

Despite rising power and budgets, the labs did not escape scrutiny for their frequent fiascos.  So they sought greater autonomy and freedom from auditors, culminating in a successful effort to create a "semi-autonomous" DOE sub-agency, namely NNSA.  We all know how that worked out.

The goals were then just what they are now: large budgets, enormous prestige and influence, all entirely unencumbered by accountability of any kind.  In other words, a perfect mafia.

Over the 1995 to 2004 decade, Weapons Activities (plus pro-rata administrative costs) increased at nearly 5% per year in real terms while actual deliverables seemed to disappear along with the precision of language justifying the ever-rising budgets.

In the first five or so years of the Bush administration, the neoconservative plan to entirely remake the U.S. arsenal failed.  Budgets subsequently sagged slightly in real terms, for lack of any reason not to sag.

A drumbeat of problems -- some real, some trumped-up -- led to the 2006 privatization of the two physics labs.  (Privatization is really something of a misnomer because the University of California was and is a nonprofit quasi-governmental organization or "quango" with many private characteristics.  In our view, the private aspect was more the problem than the solution.)

Privatization has had various dire effects including: major increases in laboratory costs (fee, gross receipts taxes, pension fund contributions); major increases in internal overhead and bureaucracy; loss of institutional knowledge as senior people took voluntary retirement to pay for the increased costs; loss of morale and (further) rise of cynicism and private greed, which has continued to supplant the previous ethic of government service; increased opacity from without and isolation within; loss of accountability; a widely-perceived hostility to science (or rather a continued downward redefinition of "science"); and (further) loss of job security.

NNSA did not expect LLCs to run these labs in the new, privatized model.  But it was too late. Having LLCs was a surprise and took away some of the benefits that had been touted for privatization.  Site managers were supposed to be part of larger companies, able to freely and easily reach back into them for talent, experience, and ideas.

Meanwhile, I think the record of fiascos and low-value-added projects at the two physics labs is reasonably familiar to you.  I hope so.  Perhaps we need an up-to-date list.

Meanwhile look at NIF.  There were plenty of physicists with deep subject matter knowledge who were pretty sure NIF would not achieve ignition.  Others, like C. Paul Robinson at SNL and Seymour Sack at LLNL to mention just two, thought NIF was irrelevant or worse.  Others were skeptical for other reasons. What has NIF accomplished, really?

Take CMRR.  Design of the CMRR project proceeded over a decade as if money or mission were not limiting.  Just as NIF was sized in part by the expected tolerance of Congress, it's now apparent that CMRR-NF was sized by the available real estate just as its failed 1989 predecessor had been.  Seismic knowledge well known by LANL was suppressed as long as possible, not long enough as it turned out.

Many other examples could be cited.  I am saying that these management failures stem from misrepresentations.  The NNSA fellow in the hearing does not usually get the whole story before coming to Capitol Hill, and most don't want to roil the waters too much anyway.

Now,with this latest crisis, to further muddy responsibility and complicate the institutional waters beyond the creation of NNSA and beyond privatization via brand-new LLCs, we now have further sub-privatization of one or more LANL missions.  Sure, there are good reasons for subcontracts.  But here, at least one dangerous core LANS function, one that must take place within a secure nuclear facility in the middle of LANL, is being subcontracted -- namely, waste handling in preparation for shipment to WIPP.  Goodness knows what else is being subcontracted.  And so an(other) institutional wall within the overall mission has been created, with more duplicative overhead, more profit, greater opportunities for misunderstanding, and more opportunity to offload risk and responsibility.  In my opinion this is really stupid.  More subtly, it reinforces the notion that "we scientists" need not concern ourselves with such quotidian issues as dealing with our own nuclear waste.  In LANL's case, we hear much more about Mars these days than we do about earth.

Reform could and should be bipartisan.

There is no a priori reason why cutting these labs' budgets could not be pursued by Democrats and Republicans alike.  The key is to be impatient with the "Dilbertized" narratives we perennially see coming from NNSA and DOE.  "Management improvement is just around the corner.  Trust us."

This business cannot be well-managed if it includes, as it does, too much money chasing too little mission -- and too much of that mission incompatible with our larger national objectives and the better angels of our nature.

It is almost too late to add or subtract anything to or from the Defense Authorization Act, but it is not too late to fence funds pending certain actions in the appropriations bills. It is certainly not too late to guide the coming year's budget request along fresh lines.  That request will come after the election, not before, and will be as free of electoral pressure as any budget request can be.

Again we will help however we can.

Thank you for your labors,

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

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