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Federal audit finds more management problems at LANL

Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 10:30 pm | Updated: 1:18 am, Wed Mar 2, 2016.

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican

A new scathing federal audit has found major weaknesses in how the managers of Los Alamos National Laboratory are identifying and addressing safety concerns and often underestimate risks at the nuclear weapons stockpile and research facility.

The audit, released Tuesday by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General, mirrors some of the same management problems identified previously by federal investigators.

“Overall, we found LANL’s corrective action program did not always adequately address issues, did not effectively prevent their recurrence, and did not consistently identify systemic problems,” the audit report said.

Repeated management problems prompted the Department of Energy to announce in December that it won’t renew a $2.2 billion management contract with Los Alamos National Security LLC when the consortium’s current contract ends in 2017. The department will put the lab’s management contract up for bid for only the second time in the facility’s 75-year history.

The lab, home of the Manhattan Project during World War II, is a complex facility dealing with radioactive legacy waste left from the nuclear weapons program and a mandate to maintain the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. It has been managed since 2006 by LANS, made up of the nonprofit University of California, along with for-profit firms Bechtel Corp., BWXT Government Group Inc. and URS Corp.

The Department of Energy turned to private industry with the idea that a for-profit model, operating under an incentives-based contract, would fix problems at the lab that haunted UC, which had run the lab since the 1940s. But federal reports show problems persist.

The recent inspector general’s audit examined management problems identified by the lab’s own internal tracking program. Auditors reviewed 460 issues cited between January 2009 and February 2014, and found “significant weaknesses” in the lab’s ability to analyze and document “the root causes” of problems — some of them significant health and safety issues — and find solutions.

As an example, auditors pointed to a chemical spill and cleanup in August 2010. A plan to correct problems in how hazardous materials were handled was drafted but never implemented. In addition, the report said, changes made to waste-handling procedures didn’t address the primary reason the spill occurred. Auditors concluded that a similar spill could happen at the lab again.

The report also said the lab didn’t ensure its subcontractors would know what to do if there were a difference in opinion about a technical process, such as handling and packaging transuranic waste for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. In February 2014, a container of radioactive waste processed at the lab and shipped to WIPP ruptured and leaked, causing the shutdown of the nuclear waste repository.

Subcontractors had followed lab procedures in that case, but packed the container with a mix of chemicals known to potentially cause explosive reactions. A misspelled word in a waste-handling manual and the reluctance of upper-level managers to listen to concerns from workers about the containers may have led to the disaster, according to a prior federal report.

The latest audit found the lab failed to analyze the causes of many health and safety incidents, such as accidents involving waste handling. Without understanding the causes of such problems, managers can’t come up with the right fixes, the report said.

In another case, auditors found that the lab’s own assessment of its construction project managers said they lacked understanding of risks involved with waste management, putting workers at risk. The lab documents didn’t indicate if anything had been done to ensure the project managers received training.

Auditors said the lab also fails to fix ongoing maintenance problems. For example, in 2012, fire system sprinkler heads were found missing or blocked in a chemical building. The sprinkler heads had remained broken for months, despite routine inspections.

The auditors did find that a program established by lab managers to handle employee concerns was “generally effective.” But aside from that bright spot, the report showed a pattern at the lab of failing to correct problems.

Lab managers said in the report that they agreed with the federal findings and were working to resolve problems. “The Laboratory is working closely with National Nuclear Safety Administration to address the findings of the audit report,” the lab said in a statement. “The Laboratory and NNSA are very serious about environment safety and health issues, and the Laboratory’s ability to deliver on mission requirements as safely as possible.”

Congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who represents the region that relies on the lab for jobs, said in a statement, “Environmental, safety and health issues are critical to the well-being of our communities and workers, and it is important that there are a number of mechanisms in place to protect worker safety and ensure that workers’ concerns can be voiced and heard. The OIG highlights issues for LANL to address and provides recommendations about how to do so.”

Chris Mechels, a former lab employee, blamed the lab’s ongoing management problems on the fact that its primary player — the University of California — hasn’t changed.

“The University of California is responsible because they control LANS, they appoint the lab’s director and they control the facilities,” Mechels said. “I’m hoping very much that the University of California won’t be allowed to bid in 2017. The feds shouldn’t have let University of California bid the last time because they had already failed.”

Others contend the mix of a nonprofit university and private for-profit companies, such as Bechtel, are a clash of management cultures that make it impossible for the group to manage the lab well.

Still others say the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration lack the staff, technical knowledge and tools to properly oversee the complexities of the lab.

And Doug Roberts, a computer programmer in Santa Fe who left the lab a decade ago due to management problems, said it may just be time for the lab to close down. “All the work done at LANL could be done elsewhere at other national lab facilities more cost effectively and in a healthier work environment,” he said.

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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