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TRINITY: 70 YEARS LATER ‘Los Alamos will never be clean’
Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2015 9:00 pm | Updated: 11:30 pm, Wed Jun 10, 2015
By Staci Matlock
A Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday slams the National Nuclear Security Administration’s oversight of contractors who are paid billions of public dollars to manage the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities.
The report recites a litany of ongoing failures to properly oversee private contractors at eight nuclear facilities, including those managing Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
The report’s authors found that the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy, lacked enough qualified staff members to oversee contractors, and it lacked guidelines for evaluating its contractors.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Information and Research Center, a government watchdog group, said Wednesday the report shows that “better oversight requires more oversight from qualified NNSA or DOE employees who have that job, and incentives to make things work.”
The GAO, which investigates federal agencies as requested by Congress, said the NNSA shortcomings stem from a 4-year-old experiment in reducing “overly prescriptive and burdensome” federal oversight of contractors by letting the private companies self-report their problems. NNSA staff told the GAO, however, that contractors aren’t always as self-critical as they need to be in assessing their own performance.
The so-called “contractor assurance system” isn’t convincing the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that the management of the nation’s nuclear facilities is improving.
Committee leaders from both major political parties pointed to a leaking container of radioactive waste from Los Alamos that shut down a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad last year as one of the incidents that prove the NNSA and the Department of Energy have a long way to go in improving oversight of private contractors.
“For nearly two decades, this committee has uncovered management challenges facing the DOE complex involving contractor oversight. For the past five years, DOE has experimented with a new approach to contractor oversight that is not ready for prime time,” committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said in a statement. “We saw the results of this experiment at the Y-12 security breach in Tennessee three years ago and more recently in oversight failures that led to a costly incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site [in New Mexico].”
The Y-12 breach occurred when three anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, slipped past security personnel and tagged buildings at a uranium enrichment facility before they were finally arrested. The incident unveiled “troubling displays of ineptitude,” the GAO said.
LANL is managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium of companies including Bechtel National, the University of California, Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services and URS Energy. The consortium was fined by the New Mexico Environment Department for the lab’s role in shipping a mislabeled waste container that erupted at WIPP, causing the radiation leak.
The lab also faces a fine from the Department of Energy for failing to track unidentified “classified” matter that disappeared after it was supposed to have been shipped to the Nevada National Security Site.
Wednesday’s report points out that the NNSA’s central headquarters stopped reviewing how field offices, like the one in Los Alamos, were overseeing contractors. The 90-page document also says the NNSA failed to finish a review of staffing levels in 2013 at the request of employees.
Currently, the agency has 1,600 employees in its Washington, D.C., office, in field offices and at a complex in Albuquerque to oversee the performance of 34,000 contract employees.
“An agency that is more than 90 percent privatized, with barely enough federal employees to sign the checks and answer the phones, is never going to be able to properly oversee billion-dollar nuclear facilities of vast complexity and danger,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.
In a letter to the GAO, NNSA Administrator Frank G. Klotz concurred with the report’s findings and said the agency will work to address the issues.
Wednesday’s report is the latest GAO finding of problems in the public-private partnership between the federal government and companies paid to oversee the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.
In 1990, the GAO found the Department of Energy insufficiently oversaw contractors. Again in 2000, the GAO put the Department of Energy’s contract management program on a “high risk” list for “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” The NNSA was established that year to reduce such risks.
In 2013, the GAO kept the NNSA on the high-risk list but narrowed the problems down to the environmental management program for nuclear waste and to major contractors. Wednesday’s report found the agency had made little or no progress in addressing those problems.
The GAO report reviewed worker safety measures, construction management, business operations, emergency management and security, among other areas.
Hancock said the report doesn’t address the significant problem of how the NNSA evaluates contractor performance tied to millions of dollars in compensation. “Performance measures should be made publicly available as they are developed each year,” he said, “and the performance awards and their bases should be more easily available to the public.”
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.
On the Web
• The Government Accountability Office report is available at www.gao.gov/assets/680/670721.pdf.