Feds dock Los Alamos lab in performance review

AP News
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Posted: Dec 30, 2014 4:26 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The contractor that runs one of the nation's premier national laboratories has lost out on tens of millions of dollars from the federal government because of what officials call a serious performance failure.

The National Nuclear Security Administration finished its annual evaluation of Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this month and the overall results aren't positive. The fee earned by Los Alamos National Security LLC for the 2014 fiscal year was slashed to $6.25 million, a fraction of the $63.4 million the contractor could have earned, according to documents made public Monday.

The NNSA singled out a mishap in February at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. That's where a container packed with radioactive waste from Los Alamos ruptured and forced the plant's indefinite closure.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan acknowledged the weight that the WIPP mishap had on the evaluation in a memo sent Monday to employees. He said the severity of the event resulted in an unsatisfactory rating when it came to the lab's operations and infrastructure.

"Although this was a very tough year for the laboratory, I am optimistic that next year will be better. I am determined to do all that I can to make it so," he told employees.

McMillan also used the memo to highlight some of the successes at the lab over the past year, including being chosen to develop a remote sensor for the Mars 2020 mission and collaborating on a project aimed at characterizing the damage at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

However, the mishap at WIPP has spurred more criticism than praise for managers at the nuclear repository and at Los Alamos.

A group of watchdogs in early December called on U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to slash the fees awarded to Los Alamos, saying its contractual performance was "seriously substandard." The watchdogs also pointed out that the lab had missed state-imposed deadlines for cleaning up Cold War-era waste on its northern New Mexico campus.

New Mexico officials have already levied $36.6 million in penalties for permit violations at Los Alamos that stemmed from the radiation leak at WIPP. The state has accused the lab of mixing incompatible waste, treating hazardous waste without a permit and failing to notify regulators about changes in the way waste was being handled.

The state's investigation is ongoing and more penalties are possible.

The Energy Department has yet to complete its investigation into what caused the container to leak, but officials suspect a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

According to the state, experts had notified the lab to stop using organic materials as early as 2012 because of the possible dangers of mixing them with nitrate salts.

The DOE has estimated it could take years and more than a half-billion dollars to get the nuclear repository operating again.