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Critics complain lab evaluations too vague

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

While the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) gave the entity managing Los Alamos National Laboratory a “very good” score, two local groups that keep an eye on the lab are more skeptical.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, complained that the evaluations the NNSA released earlier this month were reduced to a three-page summary, which he said doesn’t provide the public with the transparency it deserves.

“Up until last year, the full Performance Evaluation Reports, paid for by the taxpayer, were available to the public,” he said in a statement. “These sanitized report summaries hide the dirty details, such as chronic nuclear safety infractions that citizens should really know about.”

Coghlan said Nuclear Watch New Mexico would take legal action against the federal agency to make available the full evaluation of Triad National Nuclear Security, which is charged with managing LANL.

In 2012, Nuclear Watch New Mexico filed a lawsuit to get the full report and the NNSA obliged before a first hearing. The full reports were released every year since then until last year.

But even from the summary, Coghlan didn’t have to look far to find fault in the evaluation for Triad. He took exception to the first “issue” listed under Goal 1 of the evaluation, which is the execution of the lab’s nuclear mission. The NNSA noted that LANL “did not meet all scheduled Pit development builds,” a reference to prototypes of plutonium pits, the triggering device on nuclear warheads, it is tasked with producing.

“This calls into question how the Lab can possibly meet NNSA’s declared goal of producing at least 30 plutonium pits at LANL for the nuclear weapons stockpile by 2026, when it can’t even build all scheduled practice pits,” he said.

Greg Mello, who heads the Los Alamos Study Group, had the same concern.

“It should be troubling to NNSA that Los Alamos hasn’t met pit production goals,” he said, “but how they failed is impossible to pull out of this summary.”

Mello also had the same complaint about the lack of detail contained in the summary.

“These evaluations are too friendly, and way too vague and opaque,” he said.

For instance, the evaluation says that “COVID-19-related impacts slowed the pace of work” at LANL.

Was that because most of the workforce was working from home, he wondered.

“If 85% of staff is teleworking, what is really getting done? A lot? A little? Medium? It’s not clear,” he said.

Both Mello and Coghlan said they were hopeful that things might change under a new presidential administration.

“In the past, there was more information available as to specific successes and failures,” Mello said. “Now, it’s difficult to make head or tail out of what’s happening here. It’s a lot of money and almost no accountability for performance.”

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