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Audit blasts safety tracking at Sandia Labs

Posted: Monday, August 22, 2016 11:15 pm | Updated: 12:02 am, Tue Aug 23, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

A recent federal audit found “languishing” deficiencies in how Sandia National Laboratories tracks safety issues in its nuclear weapons program.

While watchdog groups expressed concern, a lab representative said Monday that documentation issues raised in the report do not reflect on Sandia’s ability to safely perform its mission.

“The issues identified are primarily ones of centralizing and standardizing documents to track and report soft spots,” lab spokeswoman Sue Holmes said. “They do not reflect on nuclear safety requirements, which have been and will continue to be met.”

Under the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Life Extension program, the laboratory is charged with helping carry out large-scale weapons modernization projects. The agency says maintaining the U.S.’s nuclear weapons stockpile by repairing and replacing aging weapons is a crucial national security mission. At Sandia, work has been underway to create a replacement nuclear gravity bomb, the B61-12, and a replacement warhead, the W88 Alteration 370.

Investigators with the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General said Sandia has information gaps in how problems in the weapons program are monitored and tracked. In some cases documentation was missing entirely, the report found, while information on some programs was not updated for as long as five years despite changes in the programs.

Holmes said documenting these “safety spots” was not a federal requirement and failing to do so did not indicate deficiencies in meeting nuclear safety requirements.

A letter attached to the report and signed by Frank Klotz, administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said issues highlighted by the Inspector General “do not indicate that weapons systems have undressed safety concerns.”

But nongovernment groups that monitor weapons labs said audit findings point to fundamental missteps and a lack of transparency.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said in an email that, “The long-standing lack of formality documented here is disturbing and dangerous.”

Changes made to the nuclear weapons program without documentation, he said, suggest management issues and their potential to lead to larger safety hazards.

Across the U.S. defense complex the Life Extension program is estimated to cost close to $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The audit is the second of its kind at Sandia since 2008, when a report recorded 23 “soft spots” within the nuclear weapons program. Inspectors in that audit reported that Sandia’s managers disagreed about how to resolve safety issues and could not provide documentation that they studied the implications of risks posed by safety problems.

The latest report did find that Sandia had made strides in resolving many safety issues, though these steps were tempered by spotty documentation of that work.

“As a result, the information that is needed to make informed decisions about safety improvements in future weapon refurbishment programs may not be readily accessible to Sandia management and weapon system engineers in the formal tracking system,” the report states.

Investigators said this was an issue in light of “concerns about employee turnover and the resulting loss of institutional knowledge.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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