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NM’s National Lab managers rated ‘very good’

Los Alamos National Laboratory received a “very good” rating in its most recent evaluation, up from “good” a year ago. (Associated Press)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Managers of New Mexico’s two national laboratories each earned “very good” overall ratings and will receive 88% of the annual fees they were eligible for, based on performance evaluations conducted by the federal agency supervising the labs and released earlier this month.

That translates to a $10 million increase in management fees paid to Triad National Security, manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), upping its payment to $45.7 million just as the lab ramps up production of the triggering devices for nuclear warheads.

It’s a $2.5 million boost for National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia (NTESS), which oversees operations at Sandia National Laboratories, bringing its management fee to $38.6 million.

The evaluations are conducted annually by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that’s in charge of national security and oversees the production of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. While some fees paid to the lab managers are fixed, a portion is determined by how well they are meeting performance goals.

Coping with COVID

The NNSA’s evaluation period was from Oct. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30, 2020, so it covered the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic. Both lab managers received praise in their performance evaluations for their leadership in response to the outbreak.

Materials scientist Miles Beaux works in a glovebox at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2018. (Courtesy of LANL)

That was particularly true for LANL, which received an “excellent” rating for mission leadership.

“Triad demonstrated excellence during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted by effective personnel accounting and reporting processes, an online onboarding process, contained hiring, PPE and cleaning supply procurement, testing and analysis facilities, increased productivity, and effective telework policies,” the summary evaluation states.

It says 85% of LANL’s workforce made the transition to telework, “demonstrating strong resilient management in crisis.”

Thom Mason, director at LANL and president of Triad, said he was pleased with the result of the evaluation and with the way the lab was able to respond to the outbreak.

“It was encouraging to see that, through what was a very difficult and challenging year with the COVID pandemic, our efforts to kind of keep everyone safe and execute the high-priority items that we had to get done, was recognized. It does represent, I think, a significant improvement over the year prior,” he said. “In March of last year, we had to very quickly shift to a mode of operation that was really almost completely new to us. … All of a sudden, we had to shift the majority of our activities to that kind of remote work option where people could accomplish their jobs as much as possible from the safety and comfort of their homes. And that had to happen quite rapidly.”

Addressing issues

Triad, a consortium made up of the Battelle Memorial Institute, the University of California System and the Texas A&M University System, has completed its second full year of managing LANL.

The more than $10 million fee increase is due largely to improvements made on the “good” rating it got in 2019 when Triad received only 66.3% of the eligible fees.

This year, Triad scored higher in three of the six evaluation categories, listed as “goals” in the performance evaluation.

A group of local officials was given a tour of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium facility in 2018. (Courtesy of LANL)

Altogether, Triad received “excellent” ratings in four categories. In addition to leadership, Triad earned the top rating in global nuclear security, strategic partnership projects objectives, and science technology and engineering.

“Even with all the challenges we had with the pandemic, we were able to get a lot done, and we also made a lot of progress in terms of our longer-term efforts to improve the infrastructure of the lab and improve the safety culture here at the lab, and execute some of the high-priority activities that have been assigned to us,” said Mason, who, prior to coming to LANL, was a senior vice president at Battelle.

Triad’s score in global nuclear security jumped to “excellent” after earning only a “satisfactory” rating last year.

Mason and the NNSA blamed last year’s rating on an incident involving a subcontractor at the University of Washington, where LANL’s Off-Site Source Recovery Program is located. The recent performance evaluation says Triad addressed that issue by developing a safety plan for remediation efforts after the release of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope, there in 2019.

It also says Triad adjusted well to the pandemic and provided critical support “to remove disused radioactive sources.”

Triad also improved from “satisfactory” to “very good” in operations and infrastructure – despite the summary identifying four “issues” within that goal, the most in any category.

“Triad did not always identify legacy issues before they manifested into security and maintenance issues,” reads the report.

LANL Director Thom Mason

Mason said aging infrastructure may be to blame for that problem.

“One of the challenges that we have, where we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do relates to the condition of our infrastructure. Many of our facilities were built in the post-Cold War era. They may have been state-of-the-art at that time, but they are no longer and, in some cases, the condition of those facilities makes them challenging to work in the 21st century,” he said. “In some cases, the aging of the facilities gets out in front of us. And I think that’s what’s really referred to there. And it’s an encouragement for us to do a better job at identifying those legacy issues.”

Triad was also inconsistent in delivering documentation, failed to meet four of six small business goals, and “struggled with some small-business relationships,” the evaluation said.

“The most important one is the overall fraction of our procurement that goes to small businesses, and we met that one,” he said, adding that a total of $413 million in contracts went to small businesses in New Mexico.

Mason said it was within some subcategories – such as women- and veteran-owned businesses and HUBZone businesses – where there’s room for improvement.

“What it points to is that we need to work harder to identify more capable small businesses in some of those subcategories,” he said.

Mason said such issues as “challenges in cybersecurity” and having “improper access controls” weren’t direct references to the SolarWinds hack, which has been blamed on the Russian government, because the breach wasn’t discovered until after the fiscal year.

The Department of Energy maintained that the attack was limited to business networks, yet the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a warning, calling the hack “a grave risk” to federal, state, local and tribal governments, as well as private sector businesses.

Mason said that, so far, there’s nothing to suggest LANL’s systems were jeopardized, though that remains to be seen.

“Like almost every government entity and major company, we were customers of SolarWinds and use their products. At this point, it does not appear that there has been any compromise of the important national security information that we are custodians of,” he said. “As far as we know, we have no loss of control of national security information. There are things we don’t know yet. And, obviously, you know, we don’t know what we don’t know. So far, so good, but people are still working very hard to understand the full implications of that.”

Mason said 2021 is going to be another challenging year.

“COVID is still with us. Hopefully, we’re in a position where we’re working to safely transition to a post-COVID environment,” he said. “My goal is to finish up next year every bit as strong as we finished up the year we completed at the end of September 2020.”

Lawrence Livermore National Security received an “excellent” overall rating and is receiving 91% of the fee it was vying for – a total of $58 million – and the most of any national lab.

Like New Mexico’s labs, managers of Savannah River Site, Nevada National Security Site, Kansas City National Security Campus and the NNSA Production Office each received overall ratings of “very good.”

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