LANL’s past problems and mission garners headlines.
It’s undeniable that Los Alamos National Laboratory has made its mark on New Mexico. And 2007 was a particularly important one in the lab’s 64-year history.
Talks of budget cuts dominated the news—and even upcoming election campaigns—but job losses aren’t the only things brewing on the Pajarito Plateau [Cover story, Aug. 1: “LANL 101”].
This year, the lab was the focus of federal investigations related to safety, cost overruns and security. In July, the US Department of Energy (DOE) fined LANL for security violations (LANL will pay $2.8 million under a settlement agreement).
As of press time, one of the biggest stories of the year was still developing: plans by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to name Los Alamos the nation’s permanent home for plutonium pit production. The lab already builds pits—the “triggers” for nuclear bombs—and this summer it certified the nation’s first pits to be built since Colorado’s Rocky Flats facility was closed in 1993 due to environmental and safety violations. But until now, the lab was not officially considered the permanent pit production site.
John Broehm, NNSA spokesman, tells SFR it’s still too early to say whether LANL will be named as the official site. The agency will name its “preferred alternative” for the facility sometime in December, he says.
He explains that many of the buildings housing the nation’s nuclear weapons work have been around since the 1950s.
“The footprint is way too big, with the size of the stockpile going down, and the cost to maintain the old buildings is skyrocketing,” he says.
Choosing one site as the permanent pit facility, Broehm says, would “reduce the physical footprint and consolidate what we call ‘special nuclear material’—the dangerous stuff that terrorists can get their hands on—and make it more efficient in the manufacturing process.”
But according to a Nov. 15 Albuquerque Journal story, the scuttle is that the NNSA does plan to name the lab the nation’s plutonium pit production facility.
“I would characterize this as both good news and bad news,” Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, says. “From a NIMBY attitude, it’s bad. It’s in our backyard, and plutonium pit production’s history at Rocky Flats is terrible.” He adds that such a move also will inhibit the lab’s ability to diversify—a topic that has come up with greater frequency in the past year as Congress cut nuclear weapons budgets and some lawmakers, including US Rep. Tom Udall, D-NM, called for the lab to diversify its mission toward renewable energy technology.
Coghlan finds some good news in the announcement, however. “The reason why it can be Los Alamos is the DOE is having to scale back from the massive pit production that it was originally envisioning,” he says. “It also looks like DOE is beginning to retreat from new weapons design…”
While job losses have been on everyone’s mind, an October report from the DOE Office of the Inspector General provided insight to LANL’s budget woes. According to that report, between January 2005 and April 2007, actual costs outpaced work estimates 75 percent of the time.But “good news” hasn’t been in big supply at the lab this year. In November, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying that the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories—Los Alamos, Sandia and Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore—have experienced “persistent safety problems” as a result of “long-standing management weaknesses.” The report also calls attention to the problem of continued reliance on contractors—rather than regulatory oversight—to address safety management.
Not only that, but the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also reports, in a Jan. 18, 2007 letter to the DOE, concerns about the storage of 50,000 containers of waste at Area G. And an August memo details “criticality safety” issues at TA-55, where plutonium work is done. (These safety worries led to a temporary shutdown of the facility, beginning in September.)
The public can weigh in on these topics at future public meetings and can track the board’s safety reports at www.dnfsb.gov/.
But for many, it’s the lab’s changing mission that really bears watching.
“It’s a pivotal year in the process of the devolution of Los Alamos lab into a facility that emphasizes pit production above all things,” Greg Mello, director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, says. “What’s missing from the picture is the reality that nobody really wants to invest in nuclear weapons, even most of the employees.” Not only that, he adds, “What’s missing is any realization by any New Mexico leader that the labs cannot lead us to a sustainable and just 21st century.”