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LANL docked $3.1M for shipping plutonium via commercial air

SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory has been docked $3.1 million for its previously disclosed mistake of shipping radioactive plutonium across the country using a commercial air cargo service.

In a letter published with LANL’s annual performance review, the National Nuclear Security Administration cited the shipping foul-up and other environmental, health and safety lapses as indicating “a programmatic breakdown” in safety management at the lab.

NNSA, a semi-autonomous wing of the Department of Energy that oversees the country’s national labs, also said in the Jan. 4 letter that it remains concerned that LANL “has yet to fully embrace” the need to improve its “operational discipline.”

The lab has been run since 2006 by Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), a private consortium that includes the University of California and Bechtel. For its performance for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 20, NNSA initially gave LANS its $41.4 million in fixed fees but only 70 percent of “at-risk” fees for leadership performance, $6.2 million out of a possible $8.5 million, for a total of $47.6 million.

But a NNSA contracting officer cut the fee another $3,120,231 for the “inadequate management controls” by the June shipping mishaps.

Shipping properly packed nuclear materials using a commercial ground cargo service would have been OK, but using an air cargo service to send plutonium to national labs in California and South Carolina violated safety protocols. A major difference between air and ground transportation is that there can be rapid pressure changes during a flight.

The lab got an overall performance rating of “good,” the midpoint on a five-point scale from unsatisfactory to excellent.

Asked for comment, LANL director Terry Wallace said, “Serving the nation is a commitment all of us at the Laboratory take very seriously—and one we’re called upon to do every day. I’m proud of everyone’s hard work toward delivering on our mission.”

Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque earned a top “Excellent” performance rating for the portion of fiscal 2017 from October through April. But no disclosure of fees paid by NNSA to Sandia was made, apparently because management of Sandia changed in May when Honeywell took over from Lockheed Martin.

3rd-degree failure

The shipping mishap at Los Alamos was a “third-degree” failure to meet Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) terms and conditions, says the contracting officer’s letter. While there was no direct impact on people or the environment, the incident showed “a lack of focus… on improving the operational discipline necessary for an effective ES&H program.”

“This event was also preceded by other significant ES&H lapses at LANL which indicates a programmatic breakdown in LANS’ safety management system,” the letter added.

The letter recognizes LANS’ “many accomplishments and the dedication of its professional workforce,” but said LANS originally viewed the improper plutonium shipments as ony “isolated events.” It was only after discussion with NNSA that the lab “expanded its causal analysis to consider other recent safety lapses.”

The letter cites a subsequent incident, in September, that has been described publicly by DOE as a “near miss to a fatality,” when a worker went into a room despite the sounding of a low-oxygen alarm.

The fee letter also provided new details of the shipping problems. NNSA had previously disclosed only that “nuclear materials” had been shipped. The new letter says three plutonium shipments were sent by air on two separate aircraft.

The shipments were in “Type B” containers, the letter says. A DOE document posted online say this type of package is used to transport materials “that would present a radiation hazard to the public or the environment if there were a major release.” The heavy packages provide shielding against radiation and “can range from small containers to those weighing over 100 tons.”

NNSA has rebid the Los Alamos operating contract because LANS has received inadequate performance reviews in recent years. A new contractor should be chosen later this year. UCal, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas have acknowledged they have bid on the $2.2 billion annual contract.

This year’s LANS performance review is different from those in the recent past. The total possible fee award is lower, and less of the total is “at risk,” or based on performance. Last year, LANS was awarded $58.9 million out of possible maximum $65.1 million. The fixed fees totaled only $23.8 million last year and the rest was based on performance.

The changes possibly are related to the fact that LANS was given another year on the job after DOE had decided to rebid the contract, to provide more time to prepare specifications and select a new contractor. No comment from NNSA was available on that issue Friday.

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