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$213M Project Not Working

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After more than seven years’ work and $213 million, the new security system at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s most important nuclear weapons manufacturing site doesn’t work.

A lab spokesman acknowledged the project suffered from construction problems, and an internal government memo suggests longstanding concerns by the federal government about the way Los Alamos has managed the project.

The project, intended to provide tighter security at the lab’s Technical Area 55, where plutonium research is done and nuclear bomb parts are made, was scheduled to be finished early next year. Instead, it will be delayed indefinitely.

A preliminary lab estimate puts the resulting cost overrun at $21 million to $25 million, including the cost of extra security needed because the security system doesn’t work, according to an internal National Nuclear Security Administration summary of the issue obtained by the Journal.

One option being considered to pay for the cost overruns, according to the memo, is to slash the management fee paid to Los Alamos National Security LLC, the Bechtel-University of California corporate partnership that manages the nuclear weapons design and manufacturing lab for the federal government. The partnership’s fiscal year 2011-12 management fee was $76 million.

“The performance on this project has been unacceptable, and we will hold LANS fully accountable for all costs,” said NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha.

Details of the new security system are classified, but it includes sensors, alarms and “denial systems,” according to lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

“It’s much more than just a fence,” Roark said Thursday. It is part of a widespread federal effort to upgrade nuclear security undertaking after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The NNSA, the federal agency that oversees Los Alamos, is dispatching a team of accountants next week to review the project as part of an effort to hold the lab “accountable for poor project management,” according to the memo.

In operation since the 1970s, the Technical Area 55 complex includes a massive bunker-like concrete building where most of the lab’s work with dangerously plutonium is done.

A radioactive metal, plutonium is used in the heart of nuclear weapons to trigger their massive blasts. Since the federal government’s Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was closed in the 1990s, Technical Area 55 is the only place where U.S. nuclear weapon triggers can be made.

Lab workers doing final testing of the nearly completed security system recently found a number of problems, including improperly installed fiber optic duct work, Roark said.

The faulty work was done by a lab subcontractor in 2010, according to Roark, but was only recently noticed during final “commissioning” — testing of the security system’s equipment before placing it in operation. Roark would not name the subcontractor.

The NNSA memo says the agency had warned the lab as long ago as May 2010 about the risk the project would not be finished on time or within the projected budget.

Until the problems appeared this month, the security upgrade appeared, based on public reports, to be a rare example of a project being completed on time and within its budget in an agency plagued with project management problems. It was not until Oct. 17, according to the NNSA memo, that the lab formally informed NNSA of the project’s problems.

In a report earlier this week, the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General reported that the NNSA’s nuclear infrastructure upgrade efforts were on its “watch list” because of the difficulty in managing major nuclear construction projects.

One of the most notable examples is at Los Alamos, where the cost of replacing an old laboratory building ballooned from $800 million in 2007 to an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion in 2010. As a result, the Obama administration decided earlier this year to indefinitely defer construction.

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