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NNSA, LANL face questions over safety record, plutonium program

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By Tris DeRoma

A U.S. senator from Missouri has requested answers from National Nuclear Security Administration Secretary Frank Klotz about the numerous safety violations the Los Alamos National Laboratory has incurred.

Referencing a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a ranking member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, issued a letter Thursday to the NNSA asking them to report to Congress to answer questions about safety violations.

“I have previously noted my concerns regarding DOE’s (Department of Energy’s) poor oversight and management of its contracts and its inability to properly exercise effective oversight of its budget,” McCaskill said in her letter. “The incidents described in this recent report, especially at  Los Alamos, raise serious questions about NNSA’s commitment to safety and effective contract management.”

In her letter, McCaskill asked how much of President Donald Trump’s $13.9 billion funding request will go toward improving safety standards at the Department of Energy’s facilities, and if the NNSA will fine or penalize the contractors who violated safety standards.

“Does the NNSA plan on applying sanctions or penalties of any kind to the contractors for the failure to implement adequate safety standards? Does it plan to address the failure to fix the safety issues at Los Alamos PF-4 (LANL’S plutonium manufacturing facility) and reopen it after over four years of closure?” McCaskill wrote.
Another question she asked was “Does NNSA believe the current contractors are managing its facilities effectively and safely? Why or why not?”

A press officer at McCaskill’s office in Washington replied in an email that the NNSA is still in the process of submitting answers to McCaskill’s inquiries.

LANL is also facing scrutiny over its plutonium pit program locally.

On Monday, the City of Santa Fe Finance Committee drafted a resolution that, if it makes it out of the committee and is approved by the city council, would call for a 2015 consent order between the NNSA, the New Mexico Environment Department and LANL, be recalled for further modification.

The resolution also calls for a halt to activities at PF-4 until improvements are made by the DOE’s surface and groundwater monitoring program at LANL.

The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities has monitored the health and safety concerns contained in the  resolution as it goes from draft form to final form.

As a matter of policy, the coalition does not comment on lab missions, such as plutonium production.

“When it comes to groundwater protection and increased cleanup, those are all items we completely agree upon,” RCLC Executive Director Andrea Romero said.

One of the sponsors of the resolution, Santa Fe Councilor and Finance Committee member Joseph Maestas wants to see a stronger consent agreement, one that would remove all waste from LANL. Maestas also would like to see LANL step up its commitment to stormwater management.

“It seems apparent that Santa Fe’s issues regarding the cleanup is that we would prefer that all of the contaminated materials be removed, instead of cap and cover,” Maestas said. “I realize there’s air quality monitoring and water quality monitoring occurring around the lab property. We’d like to see something similar to the stimulus funding that was key to accelerating a lot of the backlogged cleanup at the lab. The resolution is about bringing changes to the consent order that perhaps may produce that focus and the emphasis of the cleanup of that legacy waste.”

Maestas also feels the lab is not capable of reaching its plutonium pit production goal of 80 plutonium pits a year by 2027. The pits are a vital component of nuclear weaponry, and must be replaced periodically due to age and other factors.

“That remains to be seen I’m sure a lot went into that production goal, but given all of the operational problems I’m not sure it’s capable of achieving that,” Maestas said.

Maestas also wants a revamped consent order to include a stronger commitment from LANL when it comes to stormwater management.

“What concerns me the most is the slow exit of Los Alamos National Labs from the funding and managing of the early storm water warning system along the canyons that feed into the main stem of the Rio Grande,” Maestas said. “They want to phase out their involvement, their financial participation in maintaining that system.”

Others on the committee think it might not be such a good idea, citing that there’s a lot at stake to changing the consent order and interfering with LANL’s plutonium manufacturing program. Santa Fe Councilor Peter Ives, who also serves as Alternate to the Mayor on the Coalition of LANL Communities, wants the committee members to think carefully about what they want to do.

Ives noted that much work from the state, LANL and federal entities went into creating the consent order, which included determining annual accurate cleanup cost estimates for Congress to base its annual allocations for lab cleanup.
The DOE’s Environmental Management Field Office, the office that’s in charge of cleaning up waste generated before 1999, makes up about 8 percent of the lab’s annual $2 billion plus budget.

“I would hate the thought of going back on any of that,” Ives said. “We certainly don’t want to see any abeyance, I don’t want to lose ground at all. I think folks have been working pretty cooperatively together.”

Ives also wants his fellow committee members to keep in mind how their actions, if acted upon by the NNSA, LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department, would affect the regional economy.

“At some point you have to ask the question about jobs and those types of things. I have understood that our congressional delegation has been advocating for plutonium pit production from an economic development perspective,” Ives said. “..Most people, if you could wave a magic wand and make nuclear weapons disappear, we probably would.

That said, we can’t. They’re here, and clearly, we have a responsibility to keep the nuclear arsenal in good, functioning working order.”