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Editorial: New LANL contract must focus on nuclear safety

Given its ongoing safety problems – ranging from a kitty litter packaging error that shut down the nation’s only permanent nuclear waste repository for nearly three years to improperly shipping nuclear material to other federal facilities by commercial cargo plane – it’s laudable that the National Nuclear Security Administration is moving forward with its plan to put Los Alamos National Laboratory’s multibillion-dollar management contract out to bid.

Organizations planning to bid for the multiyear contract should be painfully aware of the safety lapses dogging the lab’s current operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC, which is a private consortium that includes Bechtel and the University of California, and must develop plans that propose ways to avoid such missteps in the future.

Management of the lab that developed the world’s first nuclear bomb will become even more critical as the NNSA works to extend the life of the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal. A key part of those sustainment efforts is the resumption of the manufacturing of plutonium “pits” – the triggers for nuclear bombs. Although Los Alamos has been the go-to lab for pit production in the past, the safety lapses have prompted talk of moving the process elsewhere.

That would not only be an astronomically expensive undertaking, it would likely wreak havoc on the local economy as talented scientists and technicians follow the work.

Hopefully, the lucrative $2.2 billion annual budget that goes with Los Alamos’ management will entice well-qualified and safety-conscious organizations to submit competitive bids that bring needed new blood, enthusiasm and attention to detail to Los Alamos.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.