Concerns over lab’s plutonium project in memo

-A A +A

• NNSA says memo taken out of context

By Roger Snodgrass

A memo from a frustrated official in Washington earlier this year raised questions about management of a $13 million plutonium project at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A program manager from the Department of Energy Office of Radioisotope Power Systems urged Los Alamos Site Office Manager Don Winchell at the beginning of the year to correct “the laboratory’s chronic poor performance on this program.”

The memo, which was obtained by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington, D.C., criticizes the lab’s plutonium-238 program which is supposed to supply nuclear-powered electrical systems for space and defense projects.

“They’re running a shoddy ship out there,” said Peter Stockton, POGO’s principal investigator, this morning.

A National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman disagreed.

“This is a clear case of a group taking information out of context to mislead the public,” said Damien LaVera, spokesperson from the NNSA in Washington. “The fact is that government oversight in this instance effectively served the taxpayer’s interests. The department raised issues with the lab and requested a planning document, which was immediately provided.”

LaVera provided a timeline of events, as follows:

• Jan. 9, 2009 – Owen Lowe sends letter to the LASO.

• Jan. 14, 2009 – Meeting at LANL with Owen Lowe’s staff.

• Jan. 22, 2009 – Site Office forwards LANL's draft Planning Document.

• April 8, 2009 – Meeting at HQ with Owen Lowe's Staff, Owen Lowe's verbal approval of Planning Document.

• April 27, 2009 – Site Office forwards final Planning Document to Owen Lowe for review and disposition.

“The issues have been resolved to the Department’s satisfaction, and any suggestion otherwise is simply irresponsible,” LaVera said.

Last August, the laboratory announced that 40 plutonium heat sources had been purified and encapsulated to power NASA’s Mars Science Laboratories Rover.

This technology goes back more than 40 years and was used in NASA’s Galileo, Ulysses and Cassini missions, as well as in Voyager 1 and 2.

The contract falls under the category of “work for others,” that is, other than DOE, which the laboratory has said they were trying to emphasize in the face of declining DOE budgets in the future.

But according to the memo signed by Lowe, DOE’s acting director for the program, the managers in Washington didn’t know what they can expect or when they will be supplied an appropriate budget and schedule for the work that is supposed to be done this year.

The documents included a preliminary work statement which stated that schedule and cost plans for the activities were supposed to be fleshed out in a more formal document to be prepared by LANL and approved by the supervising site office.

But, the covering memo stated, “To date, LANL has failed to provide any reasonable plan for expenditure of the $13 million anticipated budget nor basic reporting information as required by the guidance memorandum.”

The memo was dated Jan. 9, three months into the fiscal year, while the laboratory and most government agencies were being funded by a continuing resolution.

“As a first step, LANL must be held accountable for its use of funds,” Lowe wrote. “I cannot allow continued expenditures of taxpayer funds with no accountability. If the laboratory does not provide an adequate task plan and a detailed financial technical report by Feb. 15, 2009, I will take steps to stop work and withdraw funding.”

POGO has been a persistent critic of inefficiencies and management and security failures at the laboratory.

The organization is a favorite drop box for leaked memos from the Department of Energy. Among their recent concerns was an inventory discrepancy involving radioactive materials in the Plutonium Facility at LANL.

Earlier this month, the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Steven Chu expressing concern about a safety system at the Plutonium Facility.

“Many of the highest consequence accidents at LANL involve the processing, handling and storage of plutonium-238 enriched heat source plutonium,” wrote Chairman A. J. Eggenberger.