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The Republic

Work on new security system at major Los Alamos nuke lab delayed after overruns

JERI CLAUSING Associated Press
October 26, 2012 - 4:00 pm EDT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new $213 million security system designed to increase protection for the nation's nuclear bomb-building lab doesn't work, federal officials acknowledged Friday, the latest in a series of cost-overruns and questions about the integrity of work on projects aimed at upgrading the aging plutonium facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The lab and its oversight board confirmed there are major problems with the system, which has been under construction for seven years, after a memo from the National Nuclear Security Administration about the project surfaced.

"The performance on this project has been unacceptable and we will hold LANS fully accountable for all costs," said Joshua McConaha, a spokesman for the NNSA, the federal agency that oversees Los Alamos. "We take our responsibility to protect taxpayer dollars seriously. We will use all the tools available to correct the situation."

He said the agency is sending a team to the lab "to examine the financial and management issues that led us to this point. As always, protection of Category 1 material is our top priority, and we will ensure that the project is completed while maintaining full compliance with all protection requirements."

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark emphasized that security at the complex at what is called Technical Area 55 "is fully operational, very robust, and not adversely impacted by this completion delay."

Technical Area 55 is the only place in the country where nuclear weapon triggers can be made and includes a cement, bunker-like complex that houses two aging lab's where most of the lab's work with dangerous plutonium is done. Work to upgrade those facilities and make sure they are structurally able to withstand a major earthquake has also been plagued by cost overruns. The complex sits atop major fault lines.

This summer, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recently sent lab officials a report and letter saying that board staff had identified a number of deficiencies in calculations that concluded that any release from the lab's plutonium facility known as PF4 would be below the threshold deemed safe to the public. Board staff said its calculations indicate that the potential for a radiation release from an earthquake-induced fire could instead be more than four times higher than levels considered safe for public exposure.

Also this year, Congress put on hold for five years plans to build a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, whose cost estimates have ballooned from $500 million to nearly $6 billion over the past decade.

"It's a pretty big black-eye," Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said of the latest revelations. He said Los Alamos National Security, which manages the lab, shouldn't be managing construction projects.

"They are supposed to be managing a science laboratory. It's a little like the fox guarding the henhouse. And there seem to be an optimism bias regarding project management across NNSA. Or you could call it a lack of sobriety.

Mello said NNSA needs to "adopt a more defensive and aggressive management style and get it into their contracts to make these contractors accountable because the enterprise can't continue with the level of incompetence.

"The notion that the security systems guarding plutonium at the nation's premier plutonium site are deficient and need compensatory measures has not just national but international ramifications. It makes it difficult for the United States to tell other countries that their security is inadequate."

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Follow Jeri Clausing on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/jericlausing


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