The University of California will continue to manage one of the country’s most important nuclear labs alongside two partners, despite a series of accidents that raise serious concerns about the lab’s safety.
In a statement Friday, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that it had awarded a new management contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory, located near Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the University of California, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Texas A&M University.
The partnership, called Triad National Security, has managed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, for the past decade. Six for-profit companies will also serve in support roles at Los Alamos.
“We are committed to building on the legacy of world-class research, unparalleled innovation, and service to public good that have been the hallmark of the laboratory since it was founded in 1943,” the Triad principals said Friday in a joint statement.
Los Alamos is the crown jewel in a system of national laboratories owned by the Department of Energy but managed privately. One of their key tasks is designing, building, and maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal — a dangerous task that involves handling highly enriched plutonium, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Critics worry the University of California’s continued involvement will staunch much-needed changes in the Los Alamos’ management and culture. A year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, published last June, found a long series of safety violations at the lab stretching back years.
Things got so bad that nearly all the lab’s nuclear safety personnel quit in protest after a near-miss incident in 2011, CPI found. Two years later, four nuclear safety experts convinced the National Nuclear Safety Administration to temporarily shut down a key part of Los Alamos over serious safety concerns.
Safety problems at the lab have come up in over 40 government reports in the past decade, CPI found.
“They’re not where we need them yet,” James McConnell, a top DOE safety official, said of safety at Los Alamos during a public hearing in Santa Fe last year.
The University of California’s current contract to manage the lab runs through September. DOE will extend it for four months, it said on Friday, to allow a smooth transition to new management under Triad. No additional details were provided as to what will happen after the extension.
Critics of the new contract point not just to the University of California’s continued involvement but also to what they say is a lax and sloppy culture around nuclear safety there — and the lack of a plan to create a better safety culture.
“One thing that really hasn’t changed much is the lack of safety culture at the lab,” Robert Alvarez, a senior policy adviser to then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson during the Clinton administration, told ProPublica. “It’s a culture that lacks what you’d call an industrial safety ethos.”
Even some observers who’ve cautioned patience about the move have been critical of what experts say is poor Congressional oversight and weak enforcement of safety standards be the Department of Energy. If the shift in management at Los Alamos doesn’t change things, there could be few real options left.
“We need to give them a chance,” David Jonas, former general counsel of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told ProPublica. “The question is then, if nothing changes, then what? And of course I don’t have an answer for that.”