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Editorial: LANL leaders must make safety the lab’s top mission

A new lab manager, a new mission to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal with 30 plutonium “pits” for nuclear bombs, and the same old lackadaisical approach to safety.

Welcome to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a company town where the culture is apparently so ingrained, even tough Department of Energy criticisms are unable to penetrate. At a time when saber-rattling is de rigueur, when concerns over North Korea’s arsenal and a nuclear Iran are high, when HBO is airing “Chernobyl,” that does nothing to instill public trust.

LANL got dinged last year after it mistakenly used a commercial air cargo service for a cross-country radioactive plutonium shipment. In 2014, LANL’s use of the wrong kitty litter burst a storage barrel and prompted a nearly three-year shutdown of the nation’s one-and-only nuclear waste repository, WIPP in Carlsbad. And the year before, a general slate of safety issues at the lab prompted a moratorium on plutonium work.

The latest weaknesses “if uncorrected, can allow layers of defense for nuclear safety to degrade to the extent they did leading to the pause in July 2013 of key fissile material operations in the Plutonium Facility at LANL for over four years,” the DOE audit says.

And that is a huge issue considering the lab is ramping up production on the devices that act as nuclear bomb triggers. The 30-pit order is expected to be met in six years, and there’s no other facility in the country that can fill it.

According to the report, the former lab management contractor, Los Alamos National Security LLC (the University of California and the Bechtel corporation), allowed the problems to “fester.” It’s been just six months since new contractor Triad National Security LLC (UCal, Texas A&M University and Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio) took over lab management, and unfortunately it seems to have hit the ground standing. It’s clear DOE auditors are frustrated there have been just minor policy changes and most of the nuclear safety managers who “did not categorize issues as moderate- and high-risk issues when warranted” are still on the payroll.

A lab spokesman says nearly one-third of all first-line supervisors have received intensive safety training and cited the recent first shipment in five years of nuclear waste from the lab’s plutonium facility.

Great – but this is supposed to be a premiere national nuclear lab. Falling short of the bare minimum in the eyes of the DOE is a far cry from where the public expects or needs LANL to be.

Triad and LANL leadership need to do better than an apology tour blaming the last guys in charge; the lab almost lost the pit mission to South Carolina in a game of political football last year. Top brass must take the audit’s criticisms seriously and demonstrate above-and-beyond efforts to fall into line with the feds’ requirements before the project gets taken away for good.

Because LANL is home to some of the best and brightest in the nuclear industry. It is the home of the Manhattan Project. And its future is important not only to the prosperity of our state, but also to our national security.

Whatever your thoughts on nuclear proliferation, the current geopolitical unrest means this is no time for any part of the nation’s defense system to be offline, especially because managers of the kitty-litter lab couldn’t get their act together. LANL employees deserve better, as does everyone in New Mexico and the nation who are relying on them to keep us all safe.

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.

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