It's been a bad five years for Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to a report issued Monday by congressional investigators, who found:
- Fifty-seven security incidents "involving the compromise or potential compromise of classified information";
- Nineteen violations of rules meant to protect against nuclear accidents;
- Shoddy accounting for nuclear materials; and
- Management problems that delayed and drove up the cost of two major nuclear research machines.
A Los Alamos spokesman welcomed the Government Accountability Office report, noting improvements since a new corporate management team took over in June 2006. The lab is run by a consortium headed by Bechtel Corp.
Security incidents, for example, have declined since the lab's new managers took over, according to the report.
"It captures much of the history and also much of the progress," said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.
Greg Mello, a lab critic with the Los Alamos Study Group, questioned Roark's assertion that the report demonstrated progress in dealing with the lab's problems. "I don't think it does show that," Mello said.
The report's authors were also not so sanguine about the suggestion that progress was being made. "In our view," the investigators wrote, "this short period of time is not sufficient to provide a basis for meaningful trend analysis."
Furthermore, some of the problems highlighted in the report happened after the new management took over. In July 2007, for example, a lab area was found to contain 40 percent more nuclear materials than allowed by safety regulations.
In September 2007, key plutonium operations at Los Alamos had to be shut down because of safety concerns.
In addition to security and safety problems, the report criticized Los Alamos for its management of large construction projects. Among the problems was a large nuclear weapons X-ray machine that is finally scheduled to begin operations this summer, five years after it was originally supposed to be completed.
Los Alamos also bungled its part of a major research machine being built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, threatening the project's schedule and budget, according to the report.
The report comes at a critical time for Los Alamos. Members of the House of Representatives last year attempted deep cuts in the lab's $2.1 billion budget. A final budget deal in December forestalled the cuts.
The new report was requested by the two leaders of that budget-cutting effort— Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Indiana, and Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio. Visclosky and Hobson head the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee, and they are widely expected to renew their efforts to cut the budget this year.
"I think they're preparing ammunition," said David Culp, a lobbyist with the anti-war Friends Committee on National Legislation.