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Audit reviews lab problems

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By Roger Snodgrass

Responding to a congressional request for “detailing recent” information on various problem areas at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Government Accountability Office provided only a few details. Most of the information came from previous reports going back over five years.The performance audit by the congressional oversight agency took six months and resulted in a computer slide-presentation that was boiled down to a brief cover report.“Although LANL has made improvements in response to identified weaknesses, numerous investigations by GAO, the DOE Inspector General, the DOE Office of Independent Oversight and the Los Alamos Site Office have shown that the improvement efforts have not been sustained, allowing many of the weaknesses to recur,” the report stated in a background note.A graph illustrating compromising or potentially compromising classified information at LANL indicated a significant drop in incidents from the peak in 2005 of 16, which fell to five in 2006 and four in 2007.Another graph relating safety accidents showed eight incidents in 2003, down to three in each of the last two years.“We were aware of the report a couple or three months ago and believe it effectively captures much of the history, and it also acknowledges much of the progress, particularly in the areas of security and safety,” said laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark. “It may be too early to tell if the trends will last, but the trends are good.“The request was for ‘information detailing recent security, safety and management problems at LANL.’ I don’t see much ‘recent’ and I don’t see much ‘detail,’ said laboratory watchdog Greg Mello in an e-mail, after reading the report.“In July 2004, LANL’s director declared a suspension  – or stand-down – of laboratory operations to address immediate concerns, including the loss of classified computer disks,” wrote author Gene Aloise, Director, GAO Natural Resources and Environment. “During the stand-down, laboratory teams identified more than 3,400 security and safety issues.” In recounting this highly publicized crisis, the author did not immediately mention the fact that the classified computer disks were later “found” not to be lost.Aloise’s point was rather the 3,400 security and safety issues that were identified during the ensuing suspension of operations and, beyond that, the implicit question of what had occurred in the areas of security, safety and project management since the new managers, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, took over in June 2006.From Oct. 1, 2002, through June 30, 2007, according to a DOE database, there were 57 security incidents reported by LANL, 37 of which were in the category of the highest severity.The disks reported lost five years ago were brought up a few paragraphs later as an example of the most serious type of security incident reported by DOE during the period from Oct. 1, 2002, to June 30, 2007.The only other example given in the report of the remaining 36 highest severity cases is the well-known incident of the materials found in the mobile home of a former contract worker at the laboratory, who was later sentenced to two years probation for negligence.The GAO report goes to a little more trouble on what it calls “longstanding” safety concerns at LANL, mentioning 19 criticality incidents reported since 2003, including one incident in July 2007, when an area of the plutonium facility contained spent trichloroethylene that exceeded the criticality safety limit by 40 percent. Criticality issues are those in which there is a risk of an inadvertent nuclear reaction.In September 2007, the report goes on, operations were suspended in the plutonium facility over nuclear safety concerns, a fact that was reported in the press a few months later.Other safety issues highlighted were noncompliant safety documentation, inadequate safety systems, radiological exposures and $2.5 million in fines for significant enforcement actions.Although the implicit purpose of the report was to give the committee a view of changes at the laboratory after the contract competition, there was little to distinguish between violations before and after the new management arrived. And although older performance reports were quoted showing project management evaluations achieved only satisfactory ratings from fiscal years 2003-2005, current information, including the first performance review under the new management, was not cited.