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DOE Auditor Calls for Restructuring National Labs

Friday, Nov. 18, 2011

The Energy Department's internal watchdog on Tuesday released a report calling for a massive reorganization of the department's laboratories, including those that perform nuclear weapons work, the New York Times reported (see GSN, Oct. 28).

DOE inspector general Gregory Friedman warned that the department was undoubtedly going to face "painful" personnel layoffs due to looming spending cuts that are expected as a response to the federal government's massive deficit.

Friedman criticized the Energy Department's spending of approximately $13 billion annually to operate 16 different laboratories, though only roughly 50 percent of that amount is used on research activities. He advised merging some activities in order to bring down overhead.

Three of the department's laboratories focus on nuclear weapons work: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico.

The auditor recommended that an independent committee be established to look at options for merging Energy Department laboratories. He also advised that the department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration be fully brought back under department control to lower costs and redundancies. The branch, which oversees the national laboratories and other nuclear weapon operations, was created in 2000 due to security worries (Matthew Wald, New York Times, Nov. 15).

The report arrives at a time when congressional backers of strong U.S. nuclear weapons complex spending are attempting to undo a vote by the full House that would reduce NNSA weapons spending by close to $500 million in this fiscal year.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told the Albuquerque Journal that he was skeptical that Friedman's recommendations would receive much consideration by lawmakers.

"I haven't heard any serious conversation about it in Congress or here in Washington," the New Mexico lawmaker said (John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal I, Nov. 17).

Meanwhile, the facility used to generate plutonium at Los Alamos might require between $150 million and $300 million in seismic shock reinforcements that could take until the end of the decade to finish, the Journal reported.

The figures and time line were provided in a September assessment provided by Los Alamos managers to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which convened on Thursday in Santa Fe (John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal II, Nov. 17).

One board member said the panel was not fully confident that the enhancements were strong enough to ensure that surrounding populations would not be exposed to harmful radioactive emissions in the event of an earthquake at the plutonium laboratory, the Associated Press reported.

"You need to ensure adequate protection at every moment of the day," board chairman Peter Winokur said.

He told Los Alamos officials who had given presentations at the meeting that "we are a little frustrated ... and we haven't heard anything compelling here today" to assuage worries about radioactive releases following an earthquake.

Los Alamos officials said they had faith in the improvements being made to the four-decade-old PF-4 facility.

While the retrofit improvements to the plutonium building are to be finished in 2012, enhancements to the facility's fire extinguishing system are not to be completed until the following year. An air freshening system is not anticipated to be finished before 2020 and that is only if Capitol Hill allocates funds for the project.

"This should be a priority in your funding requests," Winokur said.

Greg Mello of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group said, "We do not believe the (National Nuclear Security Administration) is capable of setting sound priorities."

"We do not accept 2020 as good enough" for finishing work on the air freshening system. "To us, 2020 means whenever," Mello said (Jeri Clausing, Associated Press/The Republic, Nov. 17).


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