September 13, 2013

Nation's bloated nuclear spending comes under fire

Virtually every major project under the National Nuclear Security Administration's oversight is behind schedule and over budget.

By Jeri Clausing and Matthew Daly / The Associated Press

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Aerial view shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. It is built in an area that is susceptible to earthquakes.


These issues at the NNSA aren't new. The agency, along with the Defense Department and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, is cited regularly in a GAO report of agencies considered "high-risk" due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste and mismanagement or because they are most in need of broad reform.

However, the nuclear labs are getting renewed scrutiny in light of forced across-the-board federal budget cuts and security lapses such as an incident last year in Tennessee. Before finally being detected, an elderly nun and two other protesters cut through security fences, hung banners and crime-scene tape and hammered off a small chunk of a building inside the complex that is the nation's central repository for bomb-grade uranium.

At Los Alamos, officials late last year announced that a new security system meant to protect the only place in the country where nuclear weapon triggers are made didn't work, and they would need $41 million and six more months to fix it. Lab officials said the system is now nearing completion.

That is the same area that oversight officials worry is susceptible to earthquake damage. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which evaluates health and safety conditions at U.S. nuclear facilities, has been working with DOE and NNSA to ensure that contractors are adequately upgrading a Los Alamos facility after studies showed the potential for a major earthquake in the area to be 300 percent greater than previously believed.

The board found that upgrades initially planned by contractors were insufficient to prevent potential post-quake radiation releases. Work on the improvements continues. Safety board Chairman Peter Winokur said that the upgrades top the board's list of concerns because any building collapse could send dangerous radiological doses into nearby towns.

In addition to being over budget at times, the NNSA also has been forced to abandon several projects on which money has already been spent.

Last year, Congress suspended for five years additional spending on a $6 billion plutonium research laboratory at Los Alamos that critics say duplicates a facility in Tennessee and is an unnecessary attempt to expand the nation's nuclear bomb-building mission. The lab has been on the drawing board for 20 years — with millions spent on design plans.

Also being cut is a program at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. The plant is $3 billion over budget, now costing an estimated $7.7 billion, and is three years behind schedule, according to the GAO.

The problems have resulted in renewed scrutiny and changes in leadership at the NNSA over the past year.

Thomas D'Agostino, who had led the agency since 2007, retired in January amid criticism of management mistakes related to the Tennessee break-in. The agency has had two interim administrators since, and in August, President Barack Obama nominated retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz as its next head. He's awaiting Senate confirmation.

Members of the panel Augustine co-chairs, made up of retired military officials, former lab officials and former members of Congress, declined requests for interviews. But Augustine and other experts have previously recommended adding an overseer at sites under the NNSA. Those inspectors would be rotated periodically to ensure independence.

Critics, however, deride the panel's work as a futile exercise that repeats past reviews.

And one panel member, former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has herself become a target of government auditors for work related to the national labs. The Energy Department's inspector general reported in June that Wilson collected nearly half a million dollars for no-bid consulting work from nuclear lab contractors. The report found the contractors could not document what work Wilson had actually performed.

The contractors — Lockheed Martin, Bechtel and other companies — have since reimbursed NNSA most of the $464,203 that was paid to Wilson, but an investigation continues.

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