A federal report released this week says nuclear safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory that have gone unresolved for the past 11 years persist, even under a new operations contractor.
The report, by the Department of Energy’s Office of Enterprise Assessments, cites fire-protection problems, weekslong setbacks in nuclear work, improper out-of-state shipments of atomic materials and mislabeled hazardous waste among the issues the lab either has failed to correct or has underestimated in seriousness.
The new organization that operates the lab, Triad LLC, which took over a multibillion-dollar contract in November, has taken few steps to overhaul nuclear safety policies and practices, according to the report, which found Triad has had eight safety procedure deficiencies and delays in correcting ongoing issues. It also says the company retained most of the managers at the lab who had worked under the previous operations contractor, Los Alamos National Security LLC.
“Institutional behaviors,” the report says, “have allowed identified problems to go uncorrected, problem recurrences to be routinely accepted, and corrective actions to often be delayed for years.”
Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the lab, said Triad “has begun instituting changes.
“While this will take some time, we are on the right track and starting to see progress,” Nerzig said
The report comes as the Los Alamos lab prepares to take on an unprecedented mission as part of the nation’s effort to modernize its nuclear arsenal: It is expected to create 30 plutonium pits per year in the next decade, the highly sensitive work of building the fission cores used to trigger nuclear weapons. This work involves significantly more plutonium — a highly unstable, radioactive element — than is now being used at the lab.
This week’s report is the first to call out the lack of a culture change at the lab under its new operations contractor. Although, other recent federal reports have said some infrastructure and safety feature upgrades at the lab could be years away.
The lab’s former contractor, LANS, a consortium led by Bechtel and the University of California, as well as BWXT and AECOM, racked up $110 million in fines and lost performance bonuses for accidents and worker safety violations dating back to 2006, the first year of its contract.
When the National Nuclear Security Administration put the operations contract out for bid in 2017, citing management problems, it called for a “culture change.”
The new contract was awarded last summer to Triad, a management team also run by the University of California but partnering instead with Battelle Memorial Institute and Texas A&M University. The University of California System has served as the lab’s primary manager since the Manhattan Project despite ongoing safety issues that have prompted federal officials to seek new operators twice in a dozen years.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email he hopes the report indicates the Department of Energy “will be taking a more aggressive approach to oversight and accountability with the new LANL contractor.” He called the lab’s safety record “long-running and disappointing.”
If issues with safety procedures continue, federal officials say in the new report, they could lead to the same types of problems that shut down work at the lab’s plutonium facility in 2013.
The lab has not created a war reserve-ready pit since the facility reopened in 2015.
The report builds on findings in two inspection reports in 2015 and 2016, which raised concerns about the lab’s ability to assess the risk of a nuclear safety problem and lab officials’ tendency to mark a problem “closed” without first investigating its root cause or resolving the issue.
The majority of incidents were labeled “low-risk,” including those involving serious problems, the report says.
In addition, it says, an internal reporting system requires a two-day training, which limits workers’ access and therefore prevents some workers from reporting and discussing problems as they occur.
The report was the result of inspections conducted in December and January and involved interviews with nearly three dozen workers at the lab.