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Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

NNSA Pledges to Fix Los Alamos Plutonium Site Defense System

Oct. 29, 2012

The Obama administration has said it would push to eliminate technical flaws in a developmental protective mechanism for the nation's sole facility capable of producing key nuclear-bomb explosion initiator components, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

Defensive technology under preparation to guard the Technical Area 55 plutonium site continue to suffer from significant malfunctioning, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has verified. Officials previously announced plans to indefinitely defer completion of the 7-year-old project that has absorbed $213 million in funding, according to earlier reporting.

"We take our responsibility to protect taxpayer dollars seriously. We will use all the tools available to correct the situation," National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Josh McConaha stated.

The semiautonomous Energy Department office would dispatch specialists to the laboratory "to examine the financial and management issues that led us to this point," McConaha said. "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."

Separate controversies have focused on the potential for radioactive material to escape from the Los Alamos laboratory's aging PF-4 plutonium site, and on the spiking expense of the facility's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project. The Obama administration is seeking to delay the CMRR initiative.

Recent developments at the laboratory have caused "a pretty big black eye," said Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group.

It is problematic for the facility's private operator to be overseeing building of site structures, Mello contended.

"They are supposed to be managing a science laboratory," he said of the firm Los Alamos National Security. "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."

Nuclear agency officials must "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," Mello said. "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."

Thomas D'Agostino should relinquish his post as NNSA chief over shortcomings in the agency's operations, the Knoxville News Sentinel quoted separate independent oversight groups as saying on Friday.

"The final straw is today's news that a seven-year $213 million project to upgrade the security perimeter at nuclear weapons plutonium facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing substantial delays and up to $25 million in cost overruns," Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Project on Government Oversight said in prepared remarks. "This follows a long litany of NNSA failures and cost overruns under Tom D'Agostino's leadership."

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