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Editorial: New lab contractor needs to sweat the small stuff

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has informed Congress that the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory will be put out for competitive proposals sometime after the 2017 fiscal year. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Journal)

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has informed Congress that the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory will be put out for competitive proposals sometime after the 2017 fiscal year. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Journal)

There’s a stereotype about the “culture” of the scientists and higher-ups at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It’s been called “a culture of arrogance” and carelessness by some of the lab’s harshest critics, which at one point included the lab’s own director.

Then-LANL chief Pete Nanos, a retired Navy vice admiral, in 2004 described those responsible for a spate of safety and security violations as “buttheads” and “cowboys” for their willingness to flout the rules, characterizations rejected by many LANL long-timers as flat wrong .

Nanos shut down many lab operations for seven months, at a cost estimated at as much as $370 million, over what originally was believed to be missing computer disks containing classified information. In this case, it turned out there were no missing disks, as there had been on prior occasions, only an inventory error.

A less vituperative version of the stereotype is that LANL folks are interested in big science and research. Anything that smacks of mere engineering, manufacturing or factory work is said to be disdained.

In 2005, after various mistakes and controversies, including a major property embezzlement scheme that led to criminal charges against two lab workers, the Department of Energy put the lab management contract out for competitive proposals for the first time, after decades of operations under the University of California. The private consortium led by Bechtel Corp. that won the competition still includes the university.

Now, news comes that because of a series of recent failures – foremost, 2014’s leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant of a drum improperly packed at Los Alamos, forcing shutdown of the nation’s only nuclear waste repository – and resulting less-than-stellar reviews by LANL’s federal overseers, the lab contract will be going out for bid for a second time, sometime after the conclusion of the 2017 fiscal year.

It’s hard for outsiders to say anything definitive about an alleged “culture” at Los Alamos.

But it has become clear that it’s not failings in science or research that get the lab in trouble. The problems are usually about keeping track of stuff, whether it’s computer disks with classified information or fraudulent purchases of things like barbecue grills and picnic tables, or safety issues, including preventing an electrical fire that resulted in severe burns for one employee a few months ago and blue-collar work like packing waste drums.

Even a cursory review by a qualified scientist, or maybe a high school chemistry teacher, would have rejected mixing combustible organics (wheat-based cat litter) with nitrates in the barrel that breached at WIPP. And of course, when plutonium is around, safety issues really matter, more than anything.

Current contractor Los Alamos National Security LLC lost its chance for a contract extension because of poor marks in its two most recent annual reviews in the nonscientific category of “operations and infrastructure.” It got great marks on science.

An alternate view about the lab was published in 2011 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Hugh Gusterson, a George Mason University professor who has studied nuclear weapons scientists since the 1980s.

He maintains media and government stereotypes about a dysfunctional or careless LANL culture have led to bad management practices, including the change away from University of California leadership to the private consortium with higher management fees, and that science has been downgraded or even made irrelevant in service of management effectiveness.

Another opinion expressed internally at LANL is that lab employees are now boxed in by restrictive management structures, instead of a system in which goals are set and smart, creative employees find the best way to achieve them.

The DOE has a lot to consider as it moves forward on competition for a new contract for a facility with a $2.2 billion annual budget. Did bringing in private contractors hurt or help? LANL did avoid the classified information security scandals that had plagued the lab in the years before it got the contract.

Returning to a nonprofit or public-sector contractor such as a major university is an option that would reduce concerns over a profit motive as well as the lab’s tax burden, but it would mean millions fewer tax dollars for state and local governments in New Mexico.

Why couldn’t the combined forces of the University of California, Bechtel and other companies meet federal standards for continuing to manage the nation’s foremost nuclear weapons lab and a national center for other kinds of scientific research? If not those guys, who?

One thing is clear: Whoever next takes on the job of running LANL in fact does need to sweat the small stuff. The best way to eliminate those negative stereotypes generated by us in the news media or politicians seeking a headline is to keep nuclear weapons work safe and secure. The lab’s science will always be important, but maybe DOE’s specs for a new contract should mandate making a good factory foreman part of the leadership team.