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LANL shipment investigation draws reactions

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By Tris DeRoma

The announcement of an investigation by a government oversight agency over Los Alamos National Laboratory’s latest waste shipment violation has some people questioning what it may mean for the future of the laboratory and its weapons programs.

“They hardly ever do that,” Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello said of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s response to LANL’s violation.

The NNSA oversees LANL and the other government facilities responsible for country’s nuclear arsenal.

“The NNSA said it was serious, and the fact that they put out a press release at all means they do think that,” Mello said. “They’re tired of screw-ups at Los Alamos.”

NNSA’s investigation is about why LANL failed to follow proper procedures when shipping “special nuclear material” to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Savannah River National Laboratory.

Instead of shipping the material by commercial ground transportation, the lab instead violated safety protocols by transporting the material, reported to be a small amount, by a commercial shipping company instead.

In the release, NNSA Administrator Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz called the violation “unacceptable.”

“This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable,” Kotz said. “I require the contractors who manage and operate our national laboratories and production plants to rigorously adhere to the highest safety and security standards in performing the vitally important work they do for our national security.”

However, Mello and others who monitor lab activities think that though the NNSA seems to be taking the investigation seriously, not much reform may happen as a result.

The U.S. Department of Energy decided to put the lab’s operations and management contract, currently held by Los Alamos National Security in 2016 due to repeated violations of safety protocols at the laboratory.

The key incident that led to the decision happened when LANL shipped a drum packed with the wrong type of material that eventually set off a thermal chemical reaction inside the drum while it was being stored at a nuclear waste storage facility in Carlsbad. The drum ruptured, sending radioactive waste into the facility that made it inoperable for three years and caused millions of dollars in damages and cleanup.

“We need to see some heads roll,” Mello said. “Nothing will change until some people lose their jobs, and it has to start at the top.”

The fact that the violation happened around the same time top lab officials were doing damage control over recent media scrutiny of an article the Center for Public Integrity did on problems with LANL’s plutonium core manufacturing program hasn’t helped the lab’s situation.

“This occurred at the same time that Craig Leasure (LANL’s principal associate director of operations and business) put out a memorandum saying that the Center for Public Integrity was all wet,” Mello said. “Basically, Craig Leasure’s memo did not provide the whole story and was inappropriately optimistic.”

LANL’s most recent safety violation has also drawn criticism from New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

“The alleged violations of nuclear material shipping regulations at LANL, if true, are deeply concerning,” State Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, (D-NM) said. “The safety of the workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and in the Los Alamos community must be paramount. LANL has rigorous protocols that govern the shipping of nuclear material, and if something in this process failed or needs improvement we must correct the problem immediately. I have asked for a full briefing from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as soon as possible to better understand the situation and what is being done to ensure the safety and security of nuclear material at the lab.”

NNSA officials said they will be releasing information on the investigation when it becomes available. So far, the “special nuclear material” that was shipped has not been identified.

Also, no information been released on where the NNSA is in its investigation, or when it will be completed. At minimum, The DOE’s contract with Los Alamos National Security, the consortium of public and private corporations that manage and operate the laboratory, allows the DOE to withhold fees and enact other punitive measures.

“An investigation is being conducted to determine the root cause of this incident, as well as procedures to avoid future incidents of this type,” a statement released by the NNSA  said. “Upon completion of the investigation, NNSA will use the full terms and conditions of the contract to ensure that any responsible parties are held accountable.”