Amid transitions, both NM nuke labs get good evaluations

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s national labs, both in the midst of management transitions, got good marks from the federal government in performance evaluations for the 2016 fiscal year that ended in September.

Sandia National Laboratories was rated “excellent” by the National Nuclear Safety Administration and was awarded a “fee” for the year of $27,550,800, just short of the $27.8 million available if all performance goals had been met 100 percent.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, rocked by less than stellar evaluations in recent years, got a “very good” rating for fiscal 2016. Its annual fee payment came to $58.9 million, out of a total $65.2 million the lab could have earned.

“Sandia has consistently gotten excellent ratings for its weapons programs and science, and getting the overall excellent score was gratifying,” said Sandia spokesman Jim Danneskiold.

In December, NNSA — part of the Department of Energy — awarded the Sandia management contract to a subsidiary of Honeywell International called National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia, bypassing defense giant Lockheed Martin, which has managed the lab for more than two decades. The contract amounts to $2.6 billion a year, and the annual fee award comes on top of the contract dollars.

Los Alamos lab director Charles McMillan, in a memo to his employees obtained by the Journal, said, “As I have stated many times in the past, the people of the Laboratory are and will remain this institution’s greatest asset. The mission and operational successes of 2016 are a tribute to your spirit and character. I continue to anticipate a vibrant future filled with technical challenges worthy of this national laboratory.”

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The current LANL operating contract of about $2.2 billion held since 2006 by Los Alamos National Security LLC — a consortium including Bechtel and the University of California — runs out in September 2018.

The consortium failed to get adequate evaluations to earn contract extensions in recent years and even lost an extension year because of its poor performance for 2014. That year, a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed with a combustible mix at LANL breached at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, causing a shutdown there. The underground storage facility is just now reopening.

Despite this year’s “very good” rating for LANL, Watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico noted shortcomings that NNSA cited in the evaluation over criticality safety issues related to plutonium work (a nuclear criticality event is an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction) as the lab moves toward ramping up production of plutonium “pits,” the cores that trigger nuclear weapons’ explosions.

Parts of the evaluation say that required improvements “to the Criticality Safety Program are moving at an unacceptably slow rate” and that the leadership in operations management “has not prioritized needed criticality safety activities and improvements adequately… The number and latency of infractions in the plutonium facility is of concern.”

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