Feb 13, 2008
The Spallation Neutron Source is one of the world's leading centers for materials research, offering unprecedented levels of neutrons to do experiments. It also has become a symbol of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's success in the 21st century.
The $1.4 billion federal project was completed ahead of schedule and within its budget, a pretty rare feat in government circles these days, and ORNL has leveraged that to its advantage in many ways.
For instance, the project management of SNS is a primary reason Oak Ridge was chosen to host the U.S. involvement in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It also was why Oak Ridge was chosen for the first of five Department of Energy-sponsored nanoscience centers, and the SNS played at least a supporting role in ORNL's winning of other projects, ranging from high-performance computing to development of biofuels.
For those for may have forgotten this little tidbit: The Spallation Neutron Source was developed as a partnership of six national laboratories. Besides Oak Ridge, the others were Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Los Alamos and Thomas Jefferson. ORNL, of course, was the host site, and after the work was done, the lab took over as owner and manager.
If there had ever been a grand opening for a grand project, which there wasn't, each of the labs undoubtedly would have been thanked for their contributions.
This week, however, Los Alamos got just the opposite. The New Mexico lab got a spanking.
In a broad-based report, the Government Accountability Office blasted Los Alamos on everything from problems in securing classified data to protection of workers to weaknesses in project management. The SNS came into the conversation on the latter point.
The GAO used some of the work on the SNS to document Los Alamos problems with project management. Los Alamos was responsible for development of the linear accelerator and work on low-level radio-frequency systems.
The report said fabrication problems with the linear accelerator in 2002 resulted in a cost impact of $8 million that had to be overcome with the use of project contingency funds and "offsets." It also noted that ORNL had to take over work on the radio-frequency control system because of Los Alamos design problems and used a system already developed at another lab, Lawrence Berkeley.
"The former ORNL Spallation Neutron Source manager, who is now the laboratory director, told us that problems with these two projects led by LANL could have significantly delayed the overall project," the GAO report said.
The report, of course, was referring to Thom Mason, and I talked with Mason by telephone on Monday and asked about the GAO report. He said the report's descriptions of the SNS issues were accurate, except for a reference to "leaky tubing," which he indicated was probably a reference to the drift-tube linac.
But he was not inclined to call Los Alamos the weak sister on the SNS team.
"We had problems in a number of areas, including the linac, and that's sort of normal in projects, and that's why you have contingency and why you build float into the schedule," he said, noting that the project team was always working on a more aggressive schedule than the one committed to Congress.
Mason said it's true that, if the Los Alamos problems had not been fixed, they could have affected the entire project's success.
"But they were fixed," he said. "The way I look at it, the measure of success in a project is not the absence of problems, because that's not realistic, but how the problems are addressed."
Each of the SNS partners encountered significant issues during the development and construction period, including Oak Ridge, Mason said.
"At some point in time, everyone came under the gun," he said. "The most important thing is we were able to overcome these difficulties."
Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 342-6329. His telephone number is 865-342-6329. More information is available on Munger's blog, "Atomic City Underground," at http://blogs.knoxnews.com/knx/munger/