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Project on Government Oversight




DOE Gives Nuclear Labs One Heck of a Long Winter Vacation

January 7, 2010 


If your kid accidentally blew apart a building, would you give them less supervision? This hands-off approach is exactly what the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is doing by giving the contractors who manage the nation's eight nuclear weapons sites (Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Nevada Test Site, Sandia National Laboratory, Savannah River Site, Pantex, Y-12, and the Kansas City Plant) a six-month break from many regularly scheduled oversight reviews. 

On December 18, 2009--two days after researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) accidentally blew apart a building, causing an initial estimate of $3 million in damage--NNSA Administrator Tom D'Agostino signed a directive "placing a six-month moratorium on NNSA-initiated functional assessments, reviews, evaluations and inspections." POGO saw this directive coming, as DOE and NNSA have initiated reforms to put contractors in charge of their own oversight, "Reforming the Nuclear Security Enterprise." POGO is not convinced that this moratorium is so temporary, and is interested to know what NNSA is going to do with all of the federal full time employees at the site offices and headquarters it no longer needs as a result of this directive. 

Getting a hiatus from regular reviews are many of the areas that have had recent serious problems—security, nuclear safety, cyber security, Material Control and Accountability (MC&A), contractor assurance systems that relate to contract oversight, property accountability, and nuclear weapons quality. For example, the weaknesses with Los Alamos's MC&A program were so significant it took NNSA more than a year and a half to resolve them. Additionally, it was NNSA, not the contractor that found that Los Alamos treated its loss of more than 67 computers merely as a property management issue, and not as a potential lapse in cyber security. Over the last few years, POGO has also discovered countless security and safety incidents at Los Alamos, Livermore National Laboratory, Pantex, and Y-12, that the contractors had not provided oversight sufficient to prevent and resolve the problems. In the past, a senior manager at Los Alamos and his sidekick went to jail when the procurement system got out of control. Now, the directive exempts Los Alamos from a procurement management review. 

"It seems foolish for NNSA to abdicate its management, given the last few years of debacles at the labs," says POGO Senior Investigator Peter Stockton. "NNSA needs to recognize its role in overseeing the labs, as that was one of the major reasons it was created."

NNSA's new approach to federal safety and security oversight is irresponsible—stopping it in its entirety for six months. POGO would instead like to see NNSA make a New Year's resolution to conduct smarter, more rigorous oversight of its labs. Such a move could prevent some of the costly contractor errors that occurred in 2009, such as Los Alamos's Plutonium Facility (PF-4) needing to stop its main operations for more than one month, once again, because of the contractor and NNSA's inadequate oversight of its fire suppression system. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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