Innovation and dysfunction at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Containers of radioactive waste on the way to storage in Carlsbad, NM

On May 3, an electrical accident at a Los Alamos National Laboratory substation injured nine workers, burning one of them so severely he was hospitalized for more than a month.

Federal officials in December cited the incident as a “significant failure” on the part of the contractor charged with managing the nuclear weapons repository and research facility. The contractor — Los Alamos National Security — lost $7.2 million in federal performance fees because of the accident.

The incident also might have been the final straw that cost LANS — a consortium in which the University of California and Bechtel Corp. are the primary players — the lucrative $2.2 billion-a-year contract to manage the lab that it has held for nearly a decade.

The electrical accident was the latest in a string of problems for LANS that include injured workers, improperly handled hazardous waste, missing enriched uranium, stolen tools and the public release of classified documents. The most costly incident occurred in 2014, when a container of radioactive waste repackaged at the lab later ruptured in the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository, contaminating workers and costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to clean up.

Federal officials told Congress in December that they will put the LANL contract up for competitive bid for only the second time since the lab opened in 1943. The current LANS contract ends Sept 30, 2017.

Investigators say the problems stem from repeated management weaknesses, the kind that were supposed to get fixed when the Department of Energy turned to private industry in 2006 to oversee the lab. It was the first time the federal government had put the lab’s management up for bid, with the idea that a for-profit model, operating under an incentives-based contract, would fix the problems that haunted the nonprofit University of California, which had run the lab since World War II.

RTFA. You really should. Most of our few and treasured national labs probably are managed as erratically, poorly, occasionally as dangerously or worse – as LANL. Folks “up on the hill” are so well-paid they make Los Alamos the richest city/county in the United States. Not all are as dedicated to death and destruction as they once were required to be. News which Congress in its current 19th Century incarnation probably would not welcome. But, since the Beltway crowd mostly fears or hates anything that includes some knowledge of science – they ain’t about to peer too closely.

This is a long detailed, tightly edited history. The topic is worth volumes some of which have been written. Just wandering through I’ve noticed a few omissions, mostly unimportant, just local color. Wen Ho Lee’s avocation away from the labs is well-known. An avid, talented fly fisherman especially with light tackle. I sometimes bumped into him at a stream that also was a favorite of Al Capone.

The Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN has done stellar work criticizing the labs and oversight from the Nuclear Regulation Commission. An award-winning series for the editor BITD. The previous generation of the family that still owns the paper was sufficiently dedicated to the Republican Party and conservative ideology to fire that editor after congratulations. 🙂

13 thoughts on “Innovation and dysfunction at Los Alamos National Laboratory

  1. Puzzling Evidence™ says:

    (April 19, 2016) “LANL exec leaves without explanation” “…A higher-ranking lab executive, former LANL executive director Richard Marquez, left the lab for unexplained reasons in February. Tapia and Marquez were linked by an investigator of a LANL procurement scandal that broke in 2002 and led to guilty pleas by two lab workers. Steve Doran told a Congressional subcommittee in 2003 that Marquez and Tapia were among members of the lab’s upper management who “thwarted” investigative efforts. Marquez noted then that a special inquiry found no evidence of a cover-up and said Tapia supported investigators.”
    See also “Who Killed Richard Burick?” (Santa Fe Reporter 2/15/12) and “Mystery Of The Nuclear Whistleblower : Vicious Assault On Ex-Employee Of Los Alamos Weapons Lab The Latest In Series Of Unsolved Incidents” (Guardian, UK 6-12-5)

  2. Stay tuned says:

    “Feds give LANL contractor one more year” The federal government has granted the Bechtel-led private consortium that runs Los Alamos National Laboratory a one-year contract extension, through September 2018, and, during the interim, the more-than-$2 billion annual contract will be put out for competition. LANL director Charlie McMillan announced the latest developments at an all-employee meeting at the lab Thursday, following up on his disclosure in December that Los Alamos National Security LLC was losing the contract, but that some kind of interim extension would be worked out. LANS – which, along with Bechtel, includes the University of California, Babcock and Wilcox, and URS Energy and Construction – has failed to get adequate performance reviews to earn additional contract years. The worst evaluation was for the 2013-14 fiscal year, or FY 2014, during which a waste drum improperly packed with a combustible mix at LANL breached at the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad. The resulting radioactive contamination has kept the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant closed since the February 2014 leak, causing waste backups throughout the nation’s nuclear weapons complex sites.

  3. News item says:

    2/10/17: Los Alamos National Laboratory failed an annual assessment of its program for ensuring that work surrounding nuclear weapons development is free of accidents that could lead to a nuclear chain reaction resulting in a release of radiation.
    An evaluation of the lab’s nuclear criticality safety program in a report this month by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board that reports to the president, found the lab had two dozen ‘criticality’ safety infractions in fiscal year 2016, which ended Sept 30, most of which were self-reported by Los Alamos staff.
    A criticality accident is an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is awaiting confirmation as Secretary of the Department of Energy

  4. Pandora's box says:

    “The 63-acre Material Disposal Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory holds radioactive and other hazardous waste generated by nuclear weapons production during the Manhattan Project of World War II and the Cold War that followed.
    Just three feet below the dusty ground, there are nearly 40 pits and 200 shafts, containing somewhere between several hundred thousand and 11 million cubic feet of waste. Large, white structures, like joyless wedding tents, dot the mesa’s surface, holding drums of waste that are intended to be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and disposed of forever.
    Many of these drums are especially volatile. They belong to a waste stream that was improperly packaged, causing one drum to explode at WIPP in 2014, leaking radiation and shutting down the facility for nearly three years at a $2 billion cleanup cost.
    Area G, perhaps more than any other place at Los Alamos National Laboratory, represents the challenges that the U.S. Department of Energy faces in cleaning up the hundreds of waste sites at the lab while work continues to produce new or modernized nuclear weapons.
    A report released this spring by the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office says that out of 2,100 contaminated sites, including Area G, only about half of the cleanup at the lab has been completed after decades of work and billions of dollars spent.
    Last September, the Energy Department said the remaining scope of legacy waste cleanup is estimated to cost $3.8 billion, and it will take 24 more years to finish.

  5. Oscar G. Boum says:

    “Safety lapses undermine nuclear warhead work at Los Alamos” (6/18/17) Los Alamos’ persistent shortcomings in plutonium safety have been cited in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the past 11 years. The safety risks at the Los Alamos plutonium facility, which is known as PF-4, were alarmingly highlighted in August 2011, when a “criticality accident” was narrowly averted, one of several factors prompting many safety officials there to quit. A criticality accident is an uncontrolled chain reaction involving a fissionable material such as plutonium that releases energy and generates a deadly burst of radiation but lacks the many engineering elements that are necessary to induce explosive supercriticality

  6. Oscar G. says:

    (4/6/18): “An overflowing bathroom sink has raised nuclear safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Water from the sink on the first floor of the lab’s Plutonium Facility recently leaked into a basement used to store drums of radioactive transuranic waste, according to a report by a federal oversight board. The brief report by inspectors for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) said the leak raises issues about “nuclear criticality safety,” or the issue of preventing uncontrolled nuclear reactions.”
    “What Happens During an Uncontrolled Chain Reaction?”

  7. Demon core says:

    “All work with special nuclear materials was put on hold at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium facility in March following two violations of safety requirements meant to prevent a nuclear chain reaction, according to a federal report released Friday.” “The stand-down at the plutonium facility comes as the lab is facing increased scrutiny. The National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to escalate production of plutonium pits and must decide where to launch the decades-long project. Los Alamos, which has produced plutonium pits on a small scale for decades, is vying with the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for government approval to develop up to 80 pits per year by 2030. This would require substantial infrastructure investment and federal funds.
    A leaked document from a draft report comparing the facilities showed that production at Los Alamos could cost more and take longer to complete.”

    • Tutelary deity says:

      (May 10, 2018): “A failing, over-budget nuclear fuel factory would be scrapped at the Savannah River Site and a new atomic weapons production facility established in its place, according to a plan announced late Thursday afternoon by the federal government.
      The National Nuclear Security Administration offered the proposal to begin producing up to 50 plutonium pits per year at the site of the flagging mixed oxide fuel project near Aiken. Another 30 pits would be produced at Los Alamos, N.M., according to the plan.”
      “The Department of Energy submitted a document on May 10 to Senate and House of Representative committees saying that the Mixed Oxide (MOX) project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina would cost about $48 billion more than $7.6 billion already spent on it. The United States has never built a MOX plant.
      Instead of completing MOX, the administration, like the Obama administration before it, wants to blend the 34 tonnes of deadly plutonium – enough to make about 8,000 nuclear weapons – with an inert substance and bury it underground in a New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Burying the plutonium would cost about $19.9 billion, according to the document, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
      “We are currently processing plutonium in South Carolina for shipment (to WIPP) … and intend to continue to do so,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a letter sent to committee leaders. (Reuters May 13, 2018)

      • Bad Agnes says:

        (June 10, 2019): SANTA FE New Mexico – A federal agency announced Monday that it will prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement on production of plutonium “pits” at a South Carolina site but will perform only a lesser review, for now, of ramping up pit-making to 30 units a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
        The National Nuclear Security Administration will conduct a “supplement analysis” at LANL, following on a 2008 environmental impact statement there, and provide “site-specific documentation” for proposed authorization of expanded production of pits — the cores of nuclear weapons — at the Los Alamos lab.
        Depending on the results, NNSA may announce an amended “record of decision” for the prior environmental impact statement at LANL or could prepare more National Environmental Policy Act documentation for pit-making there.
        NNSA said in Monday’s statement that LANL, based on prior reviews, is at this point authorized to make no more than 20 pits annually.
        Re: Plutonium pits see

        • Boondoggle says:

          “In 1996, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was assigned the job of creating a plutonium warhead core – (or) “pit” – factory that could produce 50 pits per year.
          Twenty-three years and many billions later, LANL’s capacity to produce pits – let alone do so with reliability and confidence – is exactly zero.
          LANL has no pit production capability, and that will remain the case until essential repairs, installations and safety enhancements to key buildings and functions are complete. This will take at least five years and cost $3 billion, assuming success.
          Back in 1996, (the U.S. Department of Energy) said LANL could set up its factory by 2002 with only $310 million, including $200 million in deferred maintenance. Production would cost just $30 million per year. Doubling production would cost a mere $44 million and entail no extra operating costs.
          LANL wasn’t remotely ready. Mission-critical buildings couldn’t be fixed. Three of LANL’s largest projects turned into complete fiascos and were terminated, one after spending a half-billion dollars over a decade.
          Now, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) says another $3 billion will give LANL the capacity to produce 30 pits per year by 2026, three decades after this mission was assigned.
          … Why make pits at all? The U.S. has about 11,000 pits. They will remain serviceable until at least the 2060s, according to the latest unclassified joint Pentagon/DOE report. In any case, 30 pits per year, should LANL ever achieve that, does not supply enough pits for warhead production – which, of course, is not necessary in the first place. The best LANL can offer nuclear hawks is a restored R&D capability and skill retention. The rest is pure waste and heightened risk.” Greg Mello / Co-founder, Executive Director, Los Alamos Study Group, Monday, June 17th, 2019.

  8. Mr. Criticality says:

    “The Government’s New Contractor to Run Los Alamos Includes the Same Manager It Effectively Fired for Safety Problems : The Department of Energy said it would seek new leadership for Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the University of California is still there, even after mismanagement caused it to lose its contract to run the lab — twice.”
    “Same as it ever was”

  9. Fengdu says:

    “Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Matt Nerzig responded this morning to two recent reports filed by Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board on-site inspectors at LANL’s Plutonium Facility in May – one identifying skin contamination on a craft worker’s hands and the other process deviations. “The safety systems and procedures in place at the Laboratory’s plutonium facility are designed to greatly reduce the risk to Laboratory employees, the public and the environment, and make it the safest place for this type of work,” Nerzig said.

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