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Bulletin 231: Dr. Strangelove and the Los Alamos Nuclear Fiasco

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July 17, 2017 -- the day after the 72nd anniversary of the first nuclear explosion (July 16, 1945)

Dear friends –

The title of this Bulletin – the first of two or three short bulletins we hope to get to you this week – is taken from a July 13 article in The American Conservative (TAC) by managing editor Kelley Vlahos. We recommend it.

A widely-published Associated Press article allowed us to repeat some of the same themes. "Federalizing management would allow tremendous streamlining and cost savings, while better protecting employee rights and providing for a less-politicized environment.” And indeed it would.

Outside relatively narrow circles the anti-privatization meme in these articles was once heretical.

In significant part this is due to a superb series on NNSA laboratory safety debacles by Patrick Malone and his colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), discussed in Bulletin 230.

It also did not help that, just as the CPI series began, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) shipped 100 grams of weapons-grade plutonium to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the Savannah River Site (SRS) by FedEx air, something that is never supposed to happen. In our estimation these shipments must have been approved by someone with the internal authority to override long-established tradition and legal requirements, i.e. by management. In any case these acts led to an unusually candid press release from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

When the CPI series came out the semi-official Russian news site Sputnik couldn’t resist a well-placed dig (“Los Alamos Nuclear Lab Denies It’s a Disaster Waiting to Happen,Sputnik, June 23, 2017).

But it is a disaster. Objectively viewed, LANL (like its sister labs in Russia and California) is a multi-dimensional disaster that already happened, is happening, and will keep on happening. Despite many reform efforts, it is not getting better. Why? Because the problems are features, not bugs.

The era of Los Alamos National Security (LANS), the for-profit contractor that has run LANL since 2006, is drawing to a close. The management and operating (M&O) contract is finally being put out to bid. TAC’s Vlahos asks:

…if privatizing the industry proved less safe and more expensive than a government run operation, will another private contractor be any better? Furthermore, seeing how the DOE, NNSA—even the U.S. Congress—fell down in its oversight responsibilities, who can be confident that the government can turn this lab, or any other that has been farmed out to industry, around?

We said:

“The management problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory are so deep and structural, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and they won’t be fixed by picking one contractor over another. The entire contracting arrangement needs to be completely rethought, and congressional oversight committees need to do their duty,” says Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based non-profit that since 1989 has been relentless in its pursuit to cast sunlight on the lab’s activities, including its contract and program boondoggles and security breaches.

“There has been little accountability for literally hundreds of fiascos and goofball management decisions,” Mello told TAC last week. “We have to start with parsing the elements of the mission and the presumption that a lot of people can get rich while doing very little work at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory. The culture of Los Alamos is deeply arrogant and to bring back a culture of public service and intellectual integrity will require more institutional examination than has ever happened.”

Let’s leave it at that for now.

If for some reason you want a little further background on managing "the lab-that-cannot-be-reformed," please see, for example:

Best wishes,

Greg Mello

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