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Project on Government Oversight

INVESTIGATIVE LEAD: Is DOE Playing Red Light/Green Light at LANL?

Related Content: Los Alamos National Lab
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September 24, 2008

Did the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) earn a “Red” on its ability to keep track of tons of bomb-grade plutonium and unknown quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Green-Yellow-Red scale? Has that rating been replaced with a “Yellow” to deflect negative attention?

Late last week, DOE’s independent oversight group within the Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS), the Office of Assessment (OA), did an outbriefing on its investigation into LANL’s Material Control and Accountability (MC&A), or how it keeps track of its huge stocks of plutonium and HEU–enough for hundreds of nuclear weapons. If LANL does not know where the material is, it cannot say for certain that the material has not been stolen.

How well DOE’s Los Alamos Site Office (LASO) has been performing its oversight function of Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), LANL’s contractor, we understand was to be discussed during this outbriefing at Los Alamos .

We have heard from inside sources that the outbriefing did not tell the whole story.

POGO does not know what was presented, but we do know for certain that LANL has had serious problems with its MC&A. Over the last several months, multiple teams of MC&A experts from DOE headquarters, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and from other nuclear weapons sites have been at Los Alamos attempting to reconcile LANL’s databases and its physical inventory of the nuclear material. When all of these assessment teams descend on your lab, you know there is a serious problem.

POGO was tipped off to the problem several months ago, but when we brought it up with NNSA, they categorically denied it. They later called us back admitted that there was a problem, but that it only involved the loss of one very small item.

NNSA admitted to POGO that it could not locate a small item of plutonium—but they would not tell POGO how much material has not been located (inventory difference (ID)). In other words, the LANL database indicates that items and quantities of plutonium are in a particular vault—but they could not be found in that vault. A senior DOE official describes the situation at LANL/LASO “serious.” This has been a longstanding problem, and the subject of a September 2007 Inspector General (IG) report.

POGO obtained a letter of LANL asking LASO to get out of its regularly-scheduled inventory. After POGO shared the letter with DOE, LASO rejected LANL’s request.

We also know that when you ask DOE about the severity of the situation and the extent to which LASO failed to force LANL to resolve problems long before they may have spun out of control, there will be some major wordsmithing. 

A lot of questions need answers to be sure that DOE and LASO have been doing their job provide oversight of the LANL contract worth about $2.7 billion in 2007:

1. How many things did the audit team find wrong with LANL’s MC&A program?

2. What color rating did the audit team give LANL’s MC&A program?

3. How did the audit team determine which color rating to give LANL’s MC&A program?

4. Is HSS OA 100 percent confident that MC&A’s accountable items are actually present in the physical locations where MC&A records say they are?

5. Will LANL have to perform a 100 percent wall-to-wall physical inventory of all items accounted in the MC&A inventory?

6. Is anybody being held accountable at LASO for the missing items?

7. When did LASO hear of the discrepancy between items that were actually present in the physical locations and where MC&A records say they were?

8. When can an unclassified version of HSS’a OA report be made available?

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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