A new audit by the U.S. Department of Energy found substantial flaws in the management of health and safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The audit, published last week, adds to a long string of management criticisms that appear to reflect systemic weaknesses in the ability of the nation’s first nuclear weapons laboratory to prosper within a federal contract system that appears to value operational performance over scientific output.
Still another issue is micromanagement on the part of NNSA, a challenge to a large, complex scientific organization for which creativity is essential.
Late last year, the Department of Energy announced that it would not extend the Los Alamos management contract after 2017.
Observing that the Laboratory has received high marks for its scientific and national security efforts, the announcement said that continuing mediocrity in operations and infrastructure leading to the health and safety issues made DOE decide to re-compete the operations contract with the limited liability company Los Alamos National Security.
The prospective competition raises a question in Livermore and the Tri-Valley as well as in New Mexico. Will the University of California, a major partner in managing the two weapons labs, continue its historic role or drop out of an effort that for decades has been a source of scientific strength and patriotic pride, but also painful controversy.
Asked for a comment on UC plans, a UC spokesperson declined to answer directly, but said that the University “remains committed to its current role at LANL and is focused on ensuring the long-term vitality and success of this important institution. Los Alamos and Livermore labs are world-class scientific institutions.”
UC established and managed the top secret New Mexico laboratory at Los Alamos during World War II, leading to the first atomic bomb and helping bring the war to a close.
It also managed the Livermore laboratory that was created in 1952 to give creative stimulus to the nuclear weapons effort at a time when staying ahead of the Soviet Union was considered essential to national survival.
UC is no longer the sole manager of the two labs. However, its historic role as employer means that it still provides pensions and optional investment portfolios to thousands of retirees who once worked at the two laboratories.
Its former and possibly future role is the subject of a class action lawsuit by which some 4,500 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory retirees and their beneficiaries hope to return to UC health care programs (see Headline of Story, page XXX.)
The UC Livermore Retirees Group, which is pursuing the lawsuit, sent out an email last week to explain its concerns about a long term future in which the University might no longer be involved in managing the Livermore facility.
Its fear is that a new manager with no ties to past employees might offer little or no health care support.
The latest Los Alamos audit, which includes language about DOE orders and implementation of corrective action programs, does nothing to allay that fear. One long–time critic, Chris Mechels, a former LANL employe, blamed the negative report on the University of California.
“I’m hoping very much that the University of California won’t be allowed to bid in 2017,” he said, as quoted in an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican. “The feds shouldn’t have let University of California bid the last time because they had already failed.”
More balanced analysis is set forth in an article in the professional journal Physics Today. It notes criticism of the for-profit contracting model, which some have called a failure.
That model is in effect for both Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories. It was intended to improve operations by using business sector skills while retaining the scientific talents of academia, according to one of its authors, Tyler Przybylek.
Przybylek acknowledges that the system has not worked out as hoped.
Another comment comes from Bob Kuckuck, a physicist who spent years involved in research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and rose into senior management ranks there and at Los Alamos.
Kuckuck is quoted in the Physics Today article as saying that the industrial partner “did not send their A team.” They did not come to the Laboratory with “any career visions in their mind with respect to the laboratory.”
This view corresponds to a common observation among LLNL managers and retirees following the change to a for-profit contract. They conclude that Bechtel was placing high priced managers at the Laboratory to give them a place to rest for several months between overseas contract assignments that would be important to their careers.
Perhaps a more fundamental complaint about the contract model was expressed by Greg Mello of the anti-nuclear Los Alamos Study Group. Mello noted that the president of the for-profit partnership is also the director of the Laboratory, creating both a managerial blind spot and a potential conflict of interest.
Many others have noted the potential conflict as well, including leaders of the UC Livermore Retirees Group concerned about weaknesses in the LLNL contract.
The micromanagement on the part of NNSA creates a challenge to a large, complex scientific organization for which creativity is essential.
“Where historically the agency ensured that the right processes were in place at the labs and allowed the work to proceed, the NNSA now specifies the precise steps to be followed in carrying out the work. That relationship has led to a breakdown in trust between the agency and the labs,” the Physics Today article suggested.
This is not a new phenomenon, however. The National Academy of Science warned about the destructive nature of NNSA micromanagement in hearings and studies that were published five years ago and covered in the Independent.