Problems with the $213 million project designed to improve security for the building where lab workers sometimes make plutonium nuclear weapon parts have “damaged the laboratory’s credibility,” the lab’s director said in a memo to staff this week.
The system was nearly completed when lab officials discovered earlier this year that it did not work.
Two weeks ago, Los Alamos officials estimated the cost of fixing the problems at $21 million to $25 million, according to an internal National Nuclear Security Administration report obtained by the Journal.
But in his memo to Los Alamos staff Wednesday, lab director Charles McMillan said the lab now estimates the cost at $41 million. Needed work could take six months and is not likely to begin until March. In the meantime, additional guards will be needed to protect the building while the security system is inoperable. The expense of the additional guards is included in the $41 million estimated cost overrun.
The system was to have used sensors, cameras and other technology to protect one of the lab’s most sensitive sites. But when lab staffers were going through final checkout of the system while preparing to turn it on, they found that duct work that was supposed to carry data from the sensor systems to computers used to manage the system was improperly installed.
Because the project had already spent its entire budget by the time the problems were discovered, the lab was legally obligated to shut down work until an agreement can be reached with the federal government regarding additional money needed to correct the problems.
“Because we are not authorized to make this type of change in funding, the project remains in suspended status until Congress or NNSA directs us otherwise,” McMillan wrote in the lab staff memo.
Located on wooded mesas west of Santa Fe, Los Alamos is one of the nation’s three nuclear weapons design labs. Since the end of the Cold War, the lab also has taken on a growing role in manufacturing nuclear warhead components.
The security system at the lab’s Technical Area 55 protects what is arguably its most sensitive site, a 1970s-era concrete blockhouse where the lab’s work with dangerously radioactive plutonium is done. Because of plutonium’s usefulness for nuclear weapons and its attractiveness as a terrorist target, Technical Area 55 has seen heightened security since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. A public road near the site has been closed, and in 2005 the lab launched a major security upgrade.
An NNSA spokesman said this week no decisions have been made about how the agency will make up the cost overruns. Congressional action may be needed because of a $213 million cap in existing appropriations for the project.
In the report obtained by the Journal, NNSA officials said one option for paying for at least a portion of the cost overrun is to deduct money from the fee paid to Los Alamos National Security LLC, the Bechtel-University of California corporate partnership that manages Los Alamos for the federal government. The partnership’s fiscal year 2011-12 management fee was $76 million.
Officials have been publicly mum about assigning blame for the mishaps that led to the security system’s problems. But the Journal has learned that the problem stemmed from a lack of coordination among multiple contractors responsible for working on different parts of the contract.
Rather than have one contractor do all the work, a decision was made several years ago to split the project among five contractors. That saved money in bids on the project, but difficulty in coordinating the work of the different construction teams appears to have led to the problems.
NNSA and lab officials have each privately pointed the finger of blame at the other for that decision to split up the contract.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal