The consortium of nonprofits that operates Los Alamos National Laboratory struggled with safety, security and waste-management problems during the first year of its contract, including the accidental release of highly flammable cesium that required a multimillion-dollar cleanup, said an annual federal report card.
Although Triad National Security LLC received high marks in research, technology and fulfilling its nuclear mission, it showed serious deficiencies in oversight of subcontractors, waste management, construction safety and control of materials, according to a summary report the National Nuclear Security Administration made public Thursday.
“Overall, Triad experienced numerous repeat issues, impacting progress towards becoming a learning organization,” the report said, referring to the operator’s failure to learn from past mistakes.
The report, based on how well Triad met its goals set at the beginning of fiscal year 2019, is used to determine how much money the lab’s operations contractor will earn in annual bonus fees — worth tens of millions of dollars. Serious performance issues led to steep deductions in past years for the previous operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC.
Triad — composed of the Battelle Memorial Institute, the Texas A&M University System and the University of California — took over operations in November 2018.
Despite some pointed criticisms, the National Nuclear Security Administration will award Triad about $35.7 million in annual fees, or 82 percent of the maximum possible.
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, a physicist who took the job when Triad began operating the facility, said the report card is what he expected for the organization’s first year of tackling ongoing internal challenges, some of which were inherited from the previous contractor.
“By and large, the score is consistent with where we believe we are — the areas that things are going well and also the areas we need to do some work,” Mason said.
An anti-nuclear watchdog group called the report card “alarming.”
“The federal evaluation points to Triad’s repeated breakdowns in oversight and safety issues while declaring that the contractor’s so-called accomplishments only slightly outweighed these chronic issues,” Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in a statement.
“A rating of ‘good’ is simply not good enough as the lab aggressively expands the production of radioactive plutonium bomb cores for the new nuclear arms race,” Coghlan continued.
“Although Triad was challenged in several areas regarding operations and infrastructure that led to a ‘satisfactory’ rating,” the National Nuclear Security Administration said in a statement, “in 2019 Triad set the groundwork to make operational safety improvements. Hence, they were rated ‘very good’ for leadership.”
In the past, the federal agency has released full evaluations of lab operations contractors. Beginning this year, however, a spokesman said, it plans to instead issue summaries of Triad’s evaluations to avoid “security risks.”
This summary report comes a few days before the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, is scheduled to release its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2021, which will include funding for Los Alamos National Laboratory. Both the agency and President Donald Trump are expected to ask Congress to increase the agency’s budget by a fifth to $20 billion.
The report said “weaknesses in operational performance still persisted” at Los Alamos, such as breaches in safety procedures and problems with managing transuranic waste.
Triad has gotten better at controlling and accounting for materials but needs to accelerate its improvement, the report said.
Late last year, Triad failed to track 250 barrels of mostly mixed nuclear waste. An inspector discovered the barrels stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground facility in Southern New Mexico, were still listed as being stored at the lab.
The lab has since changed its tracking procedures so shipping data is updated when the waste leaves the lab rather than when it arrives at WIPP.
Another serious misstep was the release of radioactive cesium. That occurred while it was being handled by a subcontractor at the University of Washington near Seattle, Mason said.
“We’re working very closely with NNSA to develop the appropriate way to manage that kind of subcontracted work,” Mason said, noting it’s outside the U.S. Department of Energy’s normal regulations. “There’s definitely lessons we can learn from the Seattle event.”
Mason said that when he and the new consortium took over lab operations in 2018, they identified subcontractors’ oversight as a significant problem.
They have begun grouping together more tasks into larger contracts to improve efficiency and attract higher-level subcontractors, he said.
The lab resumed shipping transuranic waste to WIPP in 2019 after the shipments had been suspended for several years, Mason said. But because the waste shipments restarted partway through the year, the report might not reflect that improvement.
The report card’s criticisms echo a 2019 federal report that outlined safety problems that went unresolved for a decade.
Mason said they were still wrestling with long-standing problems that came about under the previous operator and are working to make a “culture change.”
“Although we’ve seen results in what we’ve done, I think it’s going to take time to get where we expect to be in the future,” Mason said.