GAO: LANL security lapses not fixed

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Government Accountability Office has returned to the subject of security at Los Alamos National Laboratory, this time calling for long-term strategies for improvement.

In the first part of a lengthy report released this morning, GAO responded to a request by lawmakers to describe the security environment at LANL and determine whether new management approaches would sustain security improvements over the long term.

The laboratory responded this morning with a statement that emphasized improvements identified in the report and actions taken to correct “legacy issues,” including a positive trend in reducing security incidents since 2005, consolidations and reductions in a variety classified media, assets and parts, and the creation of a “Super Vault Type Rooms,” for further limiting routine access to classified materials.

The auditors found that the laboratory is addressing problems raised in previous evaluations on many fronts and has more than two dozen initiatives underway to boost security.

“However, we found that significant security problems identified in these evaluations have not been fully addressed,” the report states. “Specifically, while LANL’s storage of classified parts in unapproved storage containers and its process for ensuring that actions to correct identified security deficiencies have been cited in external security evaluations for years, complete security solutions in these areas have not been implemented.”

The authors of the report were puzzled to find that LANL and its supervisors at the National Nuclear Security Administration had not taken advantage of their initiative calling for a reduction in physical plant to make corresponding reductions in security exposures.

They were also doubtful that the annual performance evaluations by which the laboratory’s management fees are calculated were adequately focused to encourage significant security improvements.

For the most recent evaluation period, the auditors noted, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the private partnership that manages LANL, was docked 65 percent of the fees available for leadership because of a particularly egregious security incident in the fall of 2006, but at the same time LANS earned 90 percent of the $2.7 million performance award fee available for security performance that year.

“Furthermore, of the $1.43 million potentially available for LANS security performance award fee in fiscal 2008, all but $30,000 is allocated” to paper pushing projects, publishing plans and policies, making lists, and doing well on a survey, the report observed.

The audit was requested by the John D. Dingell, D-Mich. and Joe Barton, R-Tex., the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, along with Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman and ranking member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, that has held numerous hearings on security issues at Los Alamos in recent years.

“World War II was prosecuted in less time than it is taking DOE and its contractor to bring a robust security system into force at this nuclear weapons lab,” Dingell said in a press release.

Barton said GAO’s findings were the no different than the dozen hearings that have been held on the subject by the Energy and Commerce Committee,  and that “the lab was run more like a corner hamburger stand than the crown jewel of the nation’s nuclear weapons.”

NNSA declined to provide specific comment on any recommendations, but stated, “that while there is still much to be accomplished, NNSA believes that progress has been made in addressing a number of specific areas.”

“While time will be the ultimate measure of whether these actions can be sustained, we believe that we have, developed a process to focus on continuous improvement,” the laboratory’s prepared statement added. “Together with an aggressive approach to reducing our classified holdings and providing engineering solutions to common human performance issues, we consider our efforts to be a responsible and focused approach to protecting national security.”

The audit was performed between March 2007 and June 2008. This is the fourth complete assessment of security at LANL since 2000.

Another seven surveys have been conducted by NNSA’s local site office during that period.