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UC grilled over LANL safety issues

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By Tris DeRoma

Three university systems went before the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Friday to tell the coalition once again why they would be the best candidate to take on the job of operating and managing the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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The University of California, Texas A&M  made full presentations while the University of Texas System gave a short statement at the end of the meeting during the public comment portion.

All three systems submitted bids to the National Nuclear Security Administration before the administration’s deadline.
UC Vice President for National Laboratories Kim Budil faced some tough questions before the coalition from Coalition Chairman and Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales.

The University of California has been a partner in the lab’s operation since it’s inception in 1943.

“Clearly there were a lot of mistakes made of the last couple of years in Los Alamos that led to the shut down of WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) and the threat that ultimately posed to the community for those mistakes,” Gonzales said. “I’m interested in how the University of California during that time and what levels of assurance as communities we would get, if you were selected, that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Gonzales also wanted to know, after all the years the university has been a part of the management of the laboratory, why there are “still families struggling, there’s still big challenges in poverty and opioid addiction ... all of these other things that you shouldn’t have to solve on your own as a contractor, but quite honestly donated money to a foundation and feeling that might be the end of an obligation is not necessarily what I would use as a good corporate citizen.”

Gonzales also wanted to know why the coalition often had to go alone to Washington, D.C. to ask for money every year without any help from UC.

“It would be great to have the University of California or the researchers saying ‘you better invest,’ because there are some real health issues on the legacy issues that aren’t being addressed,” Gonzales said.

Budil said there were many reasons for Gonzales’ frustrations mainly the changing roles of contractors over the many years that UC has been a part of the lab’s operations.

“As the external world changed, the expectations people had around safety and security changed over time,” Budil said.

Budil also said the latest management period, when the Los Alamos National Security consortium was formed in 2005, was an effort to bring in private contractors that had more expertise when it came to handling nuclear technology.

“We entered into a partnership to try and bring together the strengths of the university and the strengths of the private sector. Some aspects of that worked exceptionally well, and some aspects of that did not work as intended,” Budil said.

“What happened with the WIPP incident is a good example of how we adapted and improved our performance, because it highlighted for us several of the important things and how we could build the partnership… there was a key disconnect in that organization between some of the key science and technical expertise at the laboratory and the operation at the time to transfer the waste off the site and a very aggressive budget.”

Gonzales said he liked the answer, and hoped that if UC did win, it would learn to use the resources of the university to better its safety record in the future.

“I really appreciate that answer, thank you. Of course the last part the idea of the community benefits go beyond the financial contributions given the strength of the research facility that can be used to identify many issues or opportunities,” Gonzales said