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December 21, 2015

Bulletin 213: News you can use: the era of LANS at LANL is closing

Dear friends –

There is a lot of news but this bulletin will be confined to one topic only.  We will send more useful news tomorrow.

At the end of fiscal year 2017 (Sept. 30, 2017), Los Alamos National Security (LANS, LLC) will lose the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is owned, but not operated by, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its semi-autonomous sub-agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

First see this memo from LANL Director Charles McMillan (hat tip to the Los Alamos Daily Post for first publishing it), then see some of the subsequent local press:

LANS is a partnership of Bechtel National, BWXT Government Group, the University of California, and URS, an AECOM company, which was created solely to win and execute the LANL contract. That contract began on June 1, 2006.

At that time DOE valued the LANL contract at $36.6 billion (B), worth $43.1 B today. LANS partners Bechtel, WGI (which was subsequently bought by URS, which was bought by AECOM), and BWXT were partners in other DOE contracts worth, according to DOE, $100 B, $74 B, and $67 B. (For this and much more see “Competition - or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Some Questions from New Mexico,” May 2006. More essential background on the LANS partners can be found in “About the LANS partners, January 2006.)

These are among the largest of all federal contracts.

Lawrence Livermore National Security (LLNS, with almost the same companies, and almost the same board of directors, runs the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) for NNSA and DOE.

Unlike some NGOs that should have known better, this organization opposed “competing” [sic: it never was or will be a real competition] the LANL contract during the presidency of G.W. Bush, opposed privatizing LANL, and we were never happy with LANS. We have been very actively trying to end LANS’ tenure at LANL since the catastrophic WIPP contamination accident, which was entirely caused by LANS’ incompetence, serial deceptions, arrogance, and poor management. (For more articles showing the gradual development of this story, see this page. And by no means has all the dirt behind that accident come out. It never will.)

Meanwhile the list of LANS’ other management failures is very long, far exceeding the expected total cost of the WIPP accident. Take a look at our archive since LANS took over in 2006 – not just our work but the government reviews and news media there as well.

So as you can imagine we are quite pleased with this outcome, at least in a limited sense.

But will a new contractor be “better”? Almost certainly not. The problems lie deeper than any private contractor could fix. And what “better” might mean in the LANL context might not be the same for all of us.

What will indisputably take place now is a re-write of the LANL operating contract, which, as government experts have explained to us at length, does not meet the legal standards of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA), or various elementary accountability standards demanded by the Pentagon (no great champion of accountability itself, but miles beyond DOE).

As one government auditor put it, “At the NNSA labs, appropriations go around and around like the clothes in a laundromat dryer.” No one outside the labs really knows on what, or how well, appropriations are spent. Even the DOE Area Manager may not know of the existence, or be allowed to know the purpose, of some buildings on site, as one serving area manager told us.

Contract reform will however be fought every step of the way by potential bidders and their embedded allies, with some of the more than three dozen ways we have enumerated in which these companies corrupt government. (That list must await a future Bulletin.)

A recent outline (not the first, nor will it be the last) of our own suggested reforms can be found here: “LASG comments to the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL)” (September 2014).

But really, after more than 50 studies of management reform, it has become finally clear that neither LANL nor the other two nuclear weapons labs can be reformed. (“3 National Nuclear War Laboratories have run amok, block disarmament, & should be shut down,” March 2015). This realization has normative value quite apart from its immediate realization.

The labs will be with us for some time (though nothing lasts forever), but we need to begin to think about our regional and national life without them. That exercise is valuable, in many ways. As former Pentagon economist William Weida has said, “The single most important reason northern New Mexico remains poor is its failure to acknowledge that the bomb was a mistake.”

If the three nuclear labs shut down tomorrow, it is our studied opinion that the U.S. would be more secure, more awake, and better ready to face the challenges before the nation today. They have negative value. That does not mean that everything they do is of negative value. But those few things they do that are worth doing would, on balance, be better done elsewhere. The labs are only “smart” in an autistic-savant sort of way. Their political power far exceeds their intelligence and judgment; it has been that way since 1945, and this cannot be fixed within the same institutional and ideological context that caused the problem in the first place.


Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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