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Los Alamos lab waste plant over budget, behind schedule

October 3, 2013

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Los Alamos National Laboratory and its federal managers are a decade behind schedule and $128 million over budget in their effort to replace the lab’s 50-year-old radioactive liquid waste treatment plant, putting the lab’s ability to do its nuclear work at risk, federal investigators reported Wednesday.

When planning for the latest iteration of a treatment plant replacement began in 2004, the project was to be completed by 2010 at a cost of $86 million. But after spending $56 million on design work, construction has still not begun. Under the current proposal, the final cost could be as much as $214 million, with work not completed until 2020.

Problems at the plant are the latest in a long series of behind-schedule, over-budget projects. The National Nuclear Security Administration last year indefinitely delayed construction of a new Los Alamos plutonium laboratory after estimated costs soared from $600 million to $4 billion to $6 billion. Last fall, the lab acknowledged that a new $213 million security system at its most sensitive nuclear weapons work site did not work and would require tens of millions of dollars to fix.

A key problem with the waste treatment plant, according to the Inspector General’s analysis, was a failure to develop a formal “risk management plan” when the project began, identifying the ways the project could go over budget and behind schedule. A 2010 independent project review found that no such analysis was done until 2009, well after problems had begun to emerge.

The report blames both the lab, managed by a consortium led by Bechtel Corp., and the National Nuclear Security Administration for the problems.

“There’s a lot of just clear, plain incompetence,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based organization long critical of the lab’s project management.

Things have gotten better in recent years, according to the Inspector General’s report, with better cost estimates and analyses of risks to the project. In particular, the lab has done a good job of reducing the amount of radioactive waste generated by its work.

“The Laboratory and NNSA have been working closely to improve project management on (the waste treatment plant) and other projects. We appreciate the report’s recognition that the Laboratory and NNSA have made significant progress in the last two years,” lab spokesman Kevin Roark said in a statement.

The radioactive waste treatment project has fallen victim to repeated changes in requirements and design plans, according to a report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, with estimated costs at one point soaring to $350 million before the project was scaled back in its most recent redesign.

The current plant, which opened in 1963, collects waste from 63 buildings across the lab where radioactive materials are used. Tanks and filters similar to those used in a municipal sewage treatment plant separate radioactive materials from the liquid. Most of the resulting cleaned liquid is evaporated in a system recently developed to reduce liquid discharges, though the lab maintains an outfall pipe in Mortandad Canyon on lab property.

The plant has suffered equipment failures in recent years, leaving the lab with no way to process waste from its nuclear weapons work. More failures are expected, limiting the lab’s ability to carry out its mission to maintain the nation’s nuclear stockpile, the Inspector General’s investigators found.

In the past, radioactive waste piled up in large holding tanks while workers fixed the plant, then played waste treatment catch-up. But there are limits to that approach. In 2006, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board warned after a plant outage that Los Alamos was within six months of having to shut down nuclear operations completely because it had no way to treat the waste.

If the plant fails again, “their ability to do work will be dramatically diminished,” Mello said in an interview Wednesday.

Roark said construction should begin in 2014.

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