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University of California official promises better management at LANL

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

OHKAY OWINGEH – A top University of California official acknowledged Friday that there have been shortcomings at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the past but said the school remains “deeply committed” to the future of the lab as UC bids for LANL’s next management and operations contract.

Kim Budil, the university’s vice president for national labs, said UC, which has been involved in running LANL since 1943, had adapted and improved since an accident caused by LANL shut down the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad in 2014.

Budil also admitted there had been “missed opportunities” for the university to establish more of an institutional presence in northern New Mexico over the decades, but she touted new programs to support tech start-ups and for entrepreneurial fellowships as ways to do more in the future.

Budil as well as representatives of Texas A&M University and the University of Texas – also bidders for the lab contract – spoke at a meeting of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities at the Ohkay Owingeh Casino Resort Hotel north of Española.

The Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration is scheduled to award the new LANL operating contract, worth more than $2 billion annually, later this year. It was rebid after Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), a private consortium that includes UC and Bechtel, failed to receive adequate performance reviews in recent years.

Most of Budil’s remarks came in response to polite but pointed questions from Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, the coalition chairman. He said there has been “a lot of disappointment with the mistakes that were made at Los Alamos,” citing the radioactive contamination that closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2014 when a waste drum improperly packed with a combustible mix at LANL burst open.

He also said it appeared that the university had been “passive” on addressing issues such as poverty, air quality and drug addiction in northern New Mexico.

“Donating money to a foundation and feeling like that might be the end of the obligation is not necessarily what I consider (being) a good corporate citizen,” Gonzales said.

And the mayor said leaders of the local communities that make up the Regional Coalition have had to go to Washington, D.C., “alone” to lobby for more funding to clean up LANL’s hazardous waste from decades of nuclear weapons work, without help from lab researchers to make the case that “there are some real health issues” to address.

Concerning the WIPP accident, Budil said that when management at the lab shifted to the current consortium in 2006 – in the first open-bid process for the LANL contract after UC had run the lab alone since World War II – the idea was to bring the strengths of the university together with best practices from the private sector. “Some aspects worked exceptionally well” but others didn’t, she said, with the WIPP contamination “highlighting” shortcomings in how the partnership was built.

“People with deep expertise of the chemistry of nuclear waste weren’t necessarily deeply embedded” in the operational side of the lab. “It’s not operations and science,” Budil said. “Those things have to come together in a very seamless way.”

Budil said the lab had responded vigorously since 2014 and made lab operations much better, citing successes like the successful remediation of dozens of additional drums containing wastes similar to those that leaked at WIPP. “I stand by that record,” she said, adding, “We transformed the way we operate in very fundamental ways.”

On community issues, she said UC has been a strong contributor to the LANL Foundation and will continue that beyond the current LANS contract and is trying to find ways to do more, but she acknowledged the California school should have stronger relationships with local universities and more local presence in economic development efforts and other issues. Budil added that’s why she wants to push new public-private partnerships and tech transfer efforts, and using resources from “the greatest public research university in the world” on the regional problems cited by Gonzales, Budil added.

UC is reportedly teaming with Texas A&M in a joint bid for the lab contract, although neither school has publicly confirmed the partnership. A&M’s Scott Sudduth touted his school’s history in nuclear engineering and community service.

Susan Rogers, a consultant for University of Texas system, said that school’s primary goal in bidding for the lab contract was to fill the “critical need for effective national security” and that UT has “unmatched qualifications and scientific accomplishments.” The school also knows it “must play a significant role in the community that is its home,” Rogers said.

‘Pit’ production

On another issue, William S. “Steve” Goodrum, new head of the NNSA’s Los Alamos Field Office, addressed the agency’s consideration of moving the production of plutonium nuclear weapons cores known as “pits,” a job that will bring with it billions of dollars and reportedly hundreds of jobs, away from Los Alamos, even after years of planning for new underground facilities at LANL to handle the plutonium work. No new pits have been made since LANL made 29 over a few years ending in 2011.

It’s become public in recent months that NNSA has studied other locations for fulfilling a congressional mandate to make up to 80 pits a year by 2030 for a massive weapons modernization program. The two final sites under consideration are LANL and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Goodrum said NNSA was obligated to analyze alternatives for the work, that engineering studies remain to be done and the site decision will be based on “objective information.”

“It’s not like they will uproot everything at Los Alamos and move it” if pit production goes elsewhere, Goodrum said. He said LANL will continue to have “a significant role” in plutonium work.