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DOE takes bungling to a new level at LANL

SANTA FE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Energy is uncertain whether plutonium components for renovation of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile should be manufactured at the Los Alamos National Laboratory or moved to another DOE site.

The uncertainty stems primarily from a long series of major project failures at LANL.

Several decades ago, LANL successfully built a modern plutonium facility at TA-55. A highly competent laboratory project team, working closely with DOE headquarters and field office personnel, completed the project ahead of schedule and under budget

Now, the laboratory appears to be incapable of managing significant projects.

What happened? Several things happened – all of them bad.

Internally, the lab continued to employ outstanding scientists, but the same cannot be said for management in some of the support divisions.

Managers of support divisions were selected for a variety of reasons, not necessarily including merit. The process of selecting managers included such nefarious criteria as church affiliation. Occasional meddling by DOE field office managers also influenced poor selections.

It will take time and a commitment for the lab to eradicate this malignant legacy.

Externally, disastrous DOE policy and organizational changes occurred. Less than a decade after the highly successful TA-55 project, an inscrutable reorganization of the DOE was executed.

Perhaps well-intentioned, but seriously misguided, these changes were imposed by Congress in collusion with senior DOE managers.

The reorganization involved creation of an agency within the DOE bureaucracy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, along with creation of a totalitarian Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board supported by hundreds of martinets running amok in DOE facilities.

Additionally, an irrational regulatory process lacking risk perspective was established whereby contractors who are hired, directed and paid by the DOE are subjected to legalistic rule-making as if they were in the private commercial sector.

This convoluted DOE bureaucracy has taken the art of bungling to a new level. The result has been dozens of project failures and hundreds of billions of wasted tax dollars throughout the DOE, and most notably at Los Alamos.

The DOE bureaucratic blockade can never be circumvented. Congress must rescind the legislation that unduly encumbers the activities of LANL and the rest of the nuclear weapons complex.

The onerous regulatory system and the totalitarian Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board should both be abolished.

These improvident schemes should be replaced with an intelligent, efficient and effective risk management process as recommended decades ago by the Advisory Committee on Nuclear Facility Safety.

Risk management would increase the chances of success for nuclear projects while providing improved safety and security with lower cost to the taxpayers.

A time-honored project management aphorism contends that once a project is fouled up, anything done to fix it will only make it worse. This has been the case throughout the history of the DOE.

Congress must admit their mistakes and undo the damage that produced this mess; otherwise, all hope is lost.

Members of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Forces Committee have raised a concern about “long-term delays” in renovation of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

This concern is justified. In the DOE, a light year is defined as the time it takes the DOE to change a light bulb.

Schinkle lives in Los Lunas.