Letter to Al Alm - Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management


July 31, 1997

Mr. Al Alm, Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management
Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC 20585

Re:  Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)

Dear Mr. Alm:

I just received your letter of yesterday requesting nominations from our constituency to the LANL CAB.  Thank you for thinking of us.

I can't recommend people to the CAB, or the CAB to people, unless some basic changes can be made in the groundrules and context in which the CAB operates.  Very briefly, these are my concerns:

Members of the CAB have reportedly had very poor access to information. This is inexcusable, and the blame falls directly on the DOE for failing to assert its control over contractor documents and provide them to the CAB.  Section 970 of the revised DOE Acquisition Regulations (48 CFR 970, effective on August 26, 1997) provides that all contractor records paid for by the government directly or indirectly under management and operating contracts are the property of the government, and hence publicly available if not subject to any of the nine specific exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  The CAB should be able to effectively request FOIA-able documents, at least, and have them rapidly supplied.

A variety of concerns have been raised about not just information issues, but about the freedom and independence of the CAB in general.  The DOE should take every effort to provide and guarantee that independence, prior to selecting new members.  (The selection process is not very clear -- "The Department will select...").

The CAB has been repeatedly castigated and even threatened with extinction for involving itself in questions outside -- really prior to -- its environmental management mandate.  For example, the CAB has tried to look at whether the programs that will generate increased nuclear waste are really necessary and appropriate, specifically the proposal of Defense Programs (DP) to manufacture nuclear weapons pits at LANL.  Since there is no other citizens' body examining this question, the CAB has tried to fill the gap.  Given the lack of an alternative body, I think it is appropriate.  Without an examination of the more fundamental questions the CAB would be in effect ratifying DOE's answers to those questions, which would be unfortunate.

The institutional and political environment of the CAB is made quite difficult by the fact that its M&O contractor, a university of all things, is doing all the EM work, by means of a contract which is not competitively bid.  The House of Representatives has, in its Energy and Water Appropriations bill, recently decried this approach.  Until and unless the DOE can take control of its own work enough to choose its own contractors, the advice it gets from this CAB will not be very important.

If the questions being asked of the CAB have to do with prioritizing environmental restoration and waste management activities only, this seems to me to be a primarily technical and managerial question, better suited for resolution by persons with technical background in these areas.  If you would like technical advice, ask technicians.  If you would like a CAB based on interest, community service, plucked from various constituencies, as you have indicated, then you should be prepared to ask them political, rather than technical, questions.  These questions will not fall within the narrow technical mandate you have laid out. 

In sum, it appears that the DOE is trying to use the CAB to provide political acceptability for decisions which have already been made, and has bludgeoned the existing CAB for not doing that very well. 

I understand that the CAB is a chimera created by conflicting interests, and that, overall, the problems you are experiencing running your program are part and parcel of a much larger problem in governance and democracy, to which the CAB is at least an attempt to jerry-rig an answer.  As far as the CAB is concerned, that is the very best face that can be put on the matter.  A more creative answer is needed.  If you would like to discuss what that might be, I will try to help.  Thank you for your attention.  I know you have an extremely hard job. 

Greg Mello
Los Alamos Study Group

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