LANS docked $3.1M for plutonium shipment blunder

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By Tris DeRoma

A letter released Jan. 4 by the Department of Energy shows Los Alamos National Laboratory operators were penalized $3.1 million from their management fee for improperly shipping radioactive waste in June 2017. 

A few months later, in November 2017, the NNSA docked the operators, the Los Alamos National Security, or LANS, $2.7 million from its $8.8 million leadership performance evaluation fee. This is a separate fee, according to the report. 

In the report, NNSA explains the reason for the fee reduction, citing the shipping event June 16, when the lab shipped three Type B container plutonium shipments by commercial air cargo. This reduced the lab operator’s total management fee from $47.6 million to $44.5 million.  

Federal safety regulations called for shipping the material by ground transportation.

The NNSA also cited LANL’s initial reaction to the event as a reason for the reduction. 

“(The) NNSA is concerned that LANS (Los Alamos National Security) originally viewed the plutonium shipments as isolated events and only identified one root cause which focused on the failure to conduct the required quality review,” as statement in the NNSA report said.

“It was only after discussion with NNSA that LANS expanded its causal analysis to consider other safety failures and produced the more critical, systemic-focused ‘Corrective Action Plan’ referenced by your response,” said an NNSA contracting officer in a letter to Andrea Martinez an official in the Los Alamos National Security’s prime contract office. 

The NNSA saw the safety lapse as a fundamental problem.

“Although the event did not result in a direct impact to workers, the public, or the environment, the event was a failure to meet the ES&H (environment, safety and health) requirements of the contract and reflects a lack of focus within certain functions of the laboratory on improving operational discipline necessary for an effective ES&H program,” the officer said in her letter.

However, the NNSA did acknowledge the efforts the lab took to correct its shortcomings in wake of the incident.

“LANS (Los Alamos National Security) suspended all off-site shipments; maintained a hazardous material shipping pause; took personnel actions; and developed a Corrective Action Plan which has improvements designed to minimize the probability of future improper shipments,” the controlling officer said in the letter. 

LANS also created a deputy director position to manage “high consequence” activities. 

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear and environmental safety organization, said does not see LANL’s safety issues going away anytime soon, even when LANL gets a new management and operations contractor sometime this year.

“It’s caused by three things. One, they’re trying to combine a research facility with a high hazard industrial industry,” he said. “The second has to do with the geographical location of LANL, which is far from other industrial facilities.”

While Mello didn’t hold out too much hope for those options, he did hold out hope for the third. Mello said he felt that political protection given to the lab through the years has also led to the lapses in safety.

“It can count on help from the congressional delegation, and it can count on lax environmental standards,” Mello said. “In California, Livermore would never be allowed to have gotten away with what Los Alamos has gotten away with. A lot of people who should know better have said Los Alamos must be protected because of its role in supplying jobs in our poor state.”