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Report finds errors in LANL plutonium project

Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:00 pm | Updated: 8:43 am, Mon Jan 13, 2014.

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican

A project meant to better protect plutonium stored at Los Alamos National Laboratory has suffered cost overruns and delays due to poor construction, out-of-date designs, lack of qualified staff and bad information.

Construction on the plutonium facility upgrade originally was scheduled to be completed in January 2013 at a cost of $213 million. It wasn’t finished until December and still isn’t fully operational. The estimated price tag to date is more than $244 million, according to a new federal report.

Plutonium stored at the facility amounts to a hefty chunk of the nation’s nuclear materials for weapons and research and is “attractive to adversaries,” according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, charged with overseeing the lab’s nuclear program.

Problems with the project meant to safeguard the lab’s plutonium facility at Technical Area 55 continued into 2013, despite earlier warnings from a federal nuclear agency and federal auditors, said a report released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General.

Among the problems the Office of Inspector General found:

  • The lab’s system for making sure contractors were doing quality work failed, although the lab kept reporting the work was properly done.

  • Contractors built a duct bank incorrectly, the report says. It explains that although security systems for protecting nuclear materials have to be redundant, in case one is compromised, fiber-optic cables for an alarm system at the lab were put into a single duct.

  • The perimeter security fence wasn’t properly built.

  • A retaining wall to shore up soil near the north section of the security fence was built on the path of an existing radioactive liquid-waste line. An additional retaining wall, which increased costs by $11.7 million, was required, according to the report.

  • Key staff, like the National Nuclear Security Administration’s designated field person overseeing the project and LANL’s own security detail, weren’t authorized to make contractors redo the work when problems were found. They described their role as “eyes on, hands off.”

  • The lab failed to hold contractors accountable for their work.

  • The lab’s information system failed to give accurate information about how much money was left to finish construction; lab officials had to seek more money to finish the job.

  • LANL failed to respond adequately to earlier concerns about the project.

The National Nuclear Security Administration agreed with almost all of the report’s criticisms and noted it had already taken steps to correct most of the problems. The report also lists steps that the private company managing the lab, Los Alamos National Security LLC, is taking to prevent similar project problems in the future.

Lab spokesman Fred deSousa released a statement saying, “We’ve acknowledged that there were deficiencies and we’re committed to correcting them, not only in the specific ways mentioned in the Inspector General’s report but in a broader sense on project management lab-wide.”

Partners in Los Alamos National Security LLC include Bechtel, the University of California, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services and URS Energy and Construction. LANL Director Charles F. McMillan is the president of the limited liability company.

Contractors hired for the plutonium security upgrade include Burns and Roe of Los Alamos for engineering and Pro2Serve of Los Alamos for technical support to integrate and install security components into existing alarms. The three companies hired for construction were Kiewit New Mexico in Albuquerque, Hensel Phelps in Los Alamos and JB Henderson in Albuquerque.

The plutonium protection project, called the Nuclear Materials Safeguards and Security Upgrade, began in 2009. Work included installing sensors, barriers, fences, cameras, lighting, software and entrance facilities on the east and west sides of TA-55 to protect the main building where plutonium is stored.

After bids came in, the estimated total cost of the project was reduced from $245 million to $213 million. When problems with the fiber-optic cable and fence cropped up, McMillan ordered work stopped in September 2012. By October of that year, it was apparent the project would cost more than the estimate, and the lab asked for a budget increase to $254 million.

The report notes that the National Nuclear Security Administration made some progress in holding the lab accountable, and in a settlement, the lab agreed to forgo $10 million in allowable costs from the project. Los Alamos Nuclear Security also was docked $22 million in performance fees from the federal agency for problems with the plutonium security upgrade.

DeSousa said the project should be completed and operational in February.

Clarification: Congress approved a budget of $245 million in 2009 for the plutonium facility upgrade. Bids for the project came in at $213 million as reported. Problems with the project prompted LANL to request an additional $41 million to complete construction.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

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