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"Forget the Rest" blog


Press backgrounder 11/18/14

Newspaper’s Exposeˊ: Los Alamos Lab’s Incompetence, Illegal Actions Led to Contamination and Shutdown of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Cost of recent LANL mistakes exceed $1 billion, while director’s compensation rises to over $1.5 million

What happens now?  Will there ever be accountability at LANL?

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 or 505-577-8563

Albuquerque – This past Sunday, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a blockbuster exposeˊ of the causes and opaque aftermath of the contamination and shutdown incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) that occurred on February 14 of this year.  Cleanup and operation of the site will take years cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the outcome is uncertain.

Neither the Department of Energy (DOE), whose Los Alamos Site Office (LASO) is implicated in the accident, nor the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), has enacted any penalties or fines to date.

With no access to the contaminated areas underground, the DOE’s initial Accident Investigation Report focused solely on what happened after radiation was released from one or more nuclear waste containers, not what caused the release in the first place.  A second report is expected this year, but investigators have never returned to the site of the leak.  No further chemical samples have been taken.  None have ever been taken from the drum which burst.

The New Mexican story, part of a series of investigative reports by reporters Patrick Malone and Staci Matlock, explains for the first time why no further sampling or further investigation has been done by DOE at the site of the dramatic underground “event” for six months, despite many trips underground – namely, the danger of further reactions, deflagrations, or explosions in nearby waste containers, which, according to a memo from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), may contain a combination of substances very similar to patented explosives.

The New Mexican’s research showed that LANL and DOE not only sent dangerously reactive waste to WIPP with incomplete and fallacious manifests but also withheld safety information from WIPP officials after the fact.

DOE and its LANL operating contractor Los Alamos National Security (LANS), a site-specific consortium of Bechtel, URS, B&W, and the University of California, have admitted to illegal treatment of the plutonium-containing hazardous wastes in question.

It is not clear why LANS believed it could proceed in clear violation of its operating permit when not just one but many nitrate salt and nitric acid-containing drums had measured pHs too low to legally process.

How and why LANS and its subcontractor Energy Solutions mixed four different incompatible materials by the pallet-load into more than 5,000 radioactive waste drums over a period of years, and why these incompatible materials were not included in manifests, also has yet to be explained.

It is however clear that the resulting combination of chemicals could not have been accepted at WIPP, were the contents known by officials at the receiving site.

There are related aspects to the situation at LANL which we would like to draw to your attention.

As reported by the Albuquerque Journal, “LANL chief’s compensation tops $1.5M.”  There has been at least a four-fold increase in the compensation of Charles McMillan, President and CEO of LANS, over the past five years.  Over this same period, LANL has wasted more than a billion dollars in failed projects and accidents, including both the WIPP contamination incident and the failed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), not to mention others.

LANS experienced no financial consequences for wasting $500 million on designs for CMRR-NF, a facility which both LANS and DOE now admit was never necessary.  After a lawsuit was filed by the Los Alamos Study Group, the ever-expanding project was held up for a year by the need to rewrite its environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to groundbreaking, over which time the alleged necessity of the project evaporated.  The project was formally canceled in August of this year.  Congressional and executive branch endorsement of the project were based on faulty design and fallacious cost estimates developed by LANS.

Also during this period, LANL’s two key nuclear materials facilities, PF-4 (for plutonium operations) and the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility (WETF) have been partly or wholly shut down because of repeated, systemic violations of DOE safety rules.  High-mass plutonium operations have been interrupted for a year and a half at PF-4; WETF has been shut down for 4 years so far.

Another recent serious blow to management was exposed in a stunning scoop by Todd Jacobson at the Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.  DOE has or will soon decertify LANL’s accounting system for capital projects.  Until the problems are corrected DOE will not allow LANL to proceed with any capital project past its initial stages.

In 2012 and 2013, two different DOE contracting officers each recommended not extending the LANS management and operating (M&O) contract an extra year because of poor operational performance.  (See this page for evaluations of all warhead complex M&O contractors; 2014 results are pending).  Acting Administrator Neile Miller overrode the 2012 “do not extend” recommendation shortly before her departure from government.  Acting Administrator Bruce Held upheld the second one in 2013.  It remains to be seen what will happen this year.

Study Group director Greg Mello:

“First of all, the Valentine's Day contamination incident was "baked in the cake" by LANS.  WIPP operations had nothing to do with it.  The WIPP operators were the victims of LANS' actions, which amounted in part to culpable negligence and in part to knowing violations of hazardous waste and other safety laws.  How much of each is yet to be established.  Criminal investigation is warranted.

“LANS' corporate managers, DOE, and Congress need to remember that LANL is primarily a high-hazard nuclear facility.  This can't be an afterthought.  A ‘high-hazard’ identity needs to be firmly in place.  It isn't.  Too many people – especially LANS, which seeks income, profit, and political power – want LANL to be far more than it can ever be.

“Safety is just not just one goal among many at LANL but the sine qua non of everything.  If safety isn't first-class you will have an unstable operation that is prone to shutdowns, accidents, or both.  That's what LANL has today.  Not only are LANL's two main nuclear facilities shut down, but now LANS’ incompetence and greed have shut down WIPP as well.  First-class safety goes with first-class management generally.

“In this case workers were contaminated, WIPP was shut down, costs and risks increased at waste sites around the country, and hundreds of millions of dollars in new WIPP costs have been incurred, because LANL created, with some degree of knowledge, chemically unstable nuclear waste for shipment, in violation of basic chemical sense and numerous specific regulations.

“The WIPP contamination incident should be the final straw for LANS.  The LANL contract should be re-competed – or better, ended and the site federalized.  The problems are not just with the contractor but with the contract as well.  The standing LANL contract does not allow the government control over costs and has created a dysfunctional culture that contributes to poor project management – and to, as we see in this case and others, to unsafe and illegal practices.   A return to the very low- or no-fee “public interest” model of contracting, a notion championed by former Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held, would be better than today’s situation.

“There will be a tendency to want to close the door on what happened in the past, to look forward.  If this accident were the first fiasco LANS has recently caused, or even the second or the third, that might be understandable.  We can instead be confident that project failures will continue until a culture of accountability is established.  We are a long ways from that.

“In the meantime, all of LANS' at-risk fee for FY14 should be applied to the extra costs LANS incurred at WIPP.  The president and CEO of LANS, Dr. McMillan, is the one legally responsible for hazardous waste compliance.  I’m sorry to say that he, along with his environmental deputy, should be fired.

“LANL operations were and still are being conducted in violation of nuclear safety regulations, building codes, and other safety standards.  DOE and NNSA continue to tolerate a low level of project performance, chronic noncompliance with regulations, and a high level of deferred maintenance.  We are very lucky not to have had a worse accident this time.  But what about next time?

“Part of the problem is that LANL senior managers are paid far too much.  It’s not just the director.  Upon information and belief, LANL has roughly a thousand staff members who are paid more than Cabinet officials.  LANL has too many ‘managers’ and non-value-added offices, too many yea-sayers and gold diggers.  The resulting dysfunctional culture, to which many can attest, is a chronic performance, security, and safety problem at this site.

“Here in New Mexico, it remains to be seen if the New Mexico Governor Martinez will do anything more than slap LANL's wrist.  The habit of non-enforcement at LANL is deeply ingrained at NMED, and that is also why this accident occurred.  NMED was supposed to inspect the facility at which this problem was created, but never did.  NMED does not have the resources to do everything of course, so the agency needs to carefully think about the role of real penalties in inducing a more cooperative and safe LANL culture.  There may never be a more propitious time -- until the next accident, that is.”


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