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Lab management of waste facility faulted

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LANL > Audit says project is 11 years behind schedule

By The Staff

A project to replace an aging and degrading radioactive waste treatment facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory is 11 years behind schedule and its price tag has nearly tripled because of ineffective management, according to a government audit released Wednesday.

The report from the Department of Energy’s Inspector General says the National Nuclear Security Administration and Los Alamos have spent $56 million since 2004 on plans to replace its 50-year-old and sometimes failing Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility. But design work is still not complete and the two-phase project now won’t be finished until 2017 and 2020 at the earliest.

According to the audit, the facility that treats and disposes of low-level and transuranic waste has degraded and sometimes fails, leaving the lab with no way to process radioactive liquid waste while repairs are being made.

The audit is the latest in a series of government reports to detail cost overruns and delays by projects overseen by the NNSA, prompting Congress to appoint a task force that is studying a potential overhaul of the DOE-run agency.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office reported NNSA has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule. Other projects have been cancelled or suspended, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

The newest audit blames ineffective management by NNSA and Los Alamos National Security, the private contractor that runs the lab, for the delays and cost overruns on the treatment plant. In a span of seven years, the audit says, three separate designs have been developed and changes were still being made in August.

“The planning and design reversals, confusion, and incompetence documented in this report boggle the mind and exceed what seems possible,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. “It’s like a Laurel and Hardy movie, starring Bechtel-led (Los Alamos National Security) and NNSA. It happens again and again, on almost all projects.”

The lab said in a statement that “the laboratory agrees there were past RLWTF replacement project management difficulties as outlined in DOE-IG report. Design changes due to a changing set of safety, capacity, and waste disposition requirements have resulted in several project delays since 2005.

“The laboratory and NNSA have been working closely to improve project management on RLTWF and other projects. We appreciate the report’s recognition that the laboratory and NNSA have made significant progress in the last two years, and that the project is expected to advance through final design by the end of this year, with construction expected to begin in 2014.”

According to the report, these actions included improving life cycle cost estimations, implementing risk mitigation practices, and taking action to minimize liquid radioactive waste generation at the site, an action that resulted in the cost reduction of the planned facility.

The report said that according to Los Alamos officials, they have taken actions to improve cost estimation.

“In response to the March 2006 Partial Independent Project Review, Los Alamos officials told us that they completed corrective actions such as reevaluating the Total Project Cost range. Los Alamos officials also told us that they ensured the Total Project Cost range was fully reflective of the opportunities, risks and uncertainties that may impact the project costs and the basis and rationale for the Total Project Cost range were fully documented.

Officials late last year announced that a new security system meant to protect the only place in the country where nuclear weapon triggers are made didn’t work, and they would need $41 million and six more months to fix it. Lab officials said the system is now nearing completion.

The facility has been operating since 1963.