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By Brenna Goth
Energy officials, nuclear watchdogs, and labor representatives are calling on the new team chosen to lead New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to improve worker safety.
A trio of non-profits soon will be at the helm of the federal research and development facility north of Santa Fe known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The contract, awarded by the Energy Department this month, comes after multiple safety lapses by the lab’s current operator in recent years.
Boosting the lab’s safety culture was one selection criteria for teams bidding to manage the site for up to 10 years. But critics say it’s too early to tell if there will be significant changes under Triad National Security, a limited liability company led by the Regents of the University of California, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Texas A&M University—the alma mater of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The University of California is part of the current operating team, which was denied available contract extensions after high-profile incidents, including shipping a drum of improperly packaged nuclear waste that burst at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico A change in management, though, isn’t the only factor in improving lab safety, said Najm Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who follows safety culture at Energy Department facilities.
Safety at federally owned laboratories also is influenced by the priorities of the Energy Department and the work of the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said Meshkati, who researches complex technological system safety and reliability.
“They set the stage,” Meshkati told Bloomberg Environment.
Triad National Security will enter a contract worth up to $25 billion and take over Los Alamos after a transition period in the fall. The operators will lead Los Alamos as the lab aims to ramp up production of plutonium pits, a component of nuclear weapons.
The three member organizations declined to answer specific questions from Bloomberg Environment, citing a pending notice to proceed from the Energy Department. Triad National Security instead emailed a statement saying the team is “committed to building on the legacy of world-class research, unparalleled innovation, and service to public good” at Los Alamos.
Triad National Security’s selection follows scrutiny of the lab’s current operator, Los Alamos National Security. The University of California, nuclear company BWX Technologies Inc., and engineering companies Bechtel and AECOM form the for-profit company.
Safety incidents in the past several years include a 2016 audit that found weaknesses in how the lab identified, prevented and addressed safety issues as well as a Los Alamos worker who entered an oxygen-deficient room in 2017. A February audit found lapses in a program to limit worker exposure to beryllium, an element that can cause lung disease.
A laboratory spokesman told Bloomberg Environment the lab’s safety record has improved over the past 12 years. Los Alamos National Security partners “continue to strive for the most safe and secure operation and management,” Stephanie Beechem, spokeswoman for the University of California Office of the President, told Bloomberg Environment in an email.
The safety lapses, though, prompted the National Nuclear Security Administration to seek new contractors seven years early, spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.
It’s a surprise the University of California is part of the winning team for the new contract given that it “hasn’t been a stellar manager,” said Greg Mello, director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque, N.M.
The new Los Alamos contract is performance-based, including improving safety culture, according to the request for proposals. Triad National Security’s contract will be supported by a handful of private companies, according to a Energy Department press release.
Federal records examined by Bloomberg Environment show many of the contractors and sub-contractors have experience working with the Energy Department and some have been cited for safety violations. The non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute was cited by the department a decade ago for plutonium releases at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which it operates, and more recent deficiencies in its program to prevent beryllium exposure there. The Energy Department said the organization acted quickly to remedy them.
A partnership including Battelle had a 2012 incident at the Idaho National Laboratory where a plutonium release contaminated 16 workers. Battelle spokeswoman Katy Delaney told Bloomberg Environment in an email that the organization learned from the issues and “implemented corrective actions that have improved the operation and culture at each laboratory where we have a management role.”
Groups watching the lab said they’ll keep a close eye on the transition.
The University Professional and Technical Employees union, which has some members at Los Alamos, is calling for the development of a long-term plan for the lab as well as the establishment of an employee council, Jeff Colvin, chairman of the union’s Tri-Labs Committee and the immediate past system-wide executive vice president, said.
Others are waiting to see how the operators will work with the handful of companies supporting the contract.
Some of those businesses, including a branch of Huntington Ingalls Industries/Stoller Newport News Nuclear and Longenecker & Associates, are included in a separate contract for cleanup at Los Alamos that includes decontamination and remediation.
Anti-nuclear group Nuclear Watch New Mexico fought to have the environmental management contract separate from the lab management contract, Scott Kovac, operations and research director, told Bloomberg Environment. Groups also said the number of parties involved in managing the lab could make accountability more difficult.
“We’re going to be focused on who’s running the lab and who are they responsible to,” Kovac said.
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