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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to President Obama Regarding Systemic Safety Issues at Los Alamos National Lab

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20500

Via Facsimile: (202) 456-2461

Dear Mr. President:

We are writing with additional information related to our December 14, 2009, letter regarding the Department of Energy's (DOE) oversight of the nuclear weapons labs.

POGO has obtained from sources a January 2010 memo (attached) to Los Alamos Lab from DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Los Alamos Site Office. The memo outlines a systemic and massive failure of DOE and Los Alamos management to adequately enforce safety policies since 2002. POGO agrees with the tenor of the memo that Los Alamos is out of control:

[T]he commonalities between recent and earlier events indicate that the organizational learning and the sustained focus on improvement necessary for a proactive safety culture have not been embraced across this site.  

The memo details serious safety incidents over the past year at a number of Technical Area (TA) facilities, such as accidental electric shock and burns to an employee over 5 percent of his body; three accidental explosions in TA-35, TA-48, and TA-35; workers at TA-53 receiving unacceptable accidental doses of radiation; and an incident in which researchers accidently blew up most of a facility at TA-15 with a large-bore powder gun, which acts like a cannon. The memo goes on to trace over the last eight years at least two other accidental explosions at TA-54 and TA-9; two researchers who accidentally inhaled acid fumes at TA-48; a laser that caused a severe eye injury, which led to a six-month shutdown; an accident in which a researcher accidentally sprayed acid into other researchers' eyes; and an accident involving severe burns to a TA-9 researcher.

The safety incidents don't end with those cited in the memo. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has identified other recent safety fiascos at Los Alamos, such as the faulty fire suppression system at the Plutonium Facility, and previously undisclosed studies that the public could be exposed to thousands of rem in the event of an earthquake and resultant fire at TA-55 because of adequate safety systems are not in place. (We are pleased to learn that Secretary Chu has sought to address this last problem and to reduce the risk of catastrophic radiation release at TA-55.)

This long history of unimproved safety performance indicates that Los Alamos is not being held accountable for its repeated safety failings. There is an obvious and effective solution to get Los Alamos to address these failings: DOE should use its power of the purse by withholding a significant portion of the approximately $70 million per year Los Alamos receives in contract award fees until its safety record markedly improves. Because of NNSA's recent decision to withhold all of the nuclear weapon labs' annual Performance Evaluation Plans (PEPs) and Performance Evaluation Reports (PERs), we are not able to determine whether DOE took such action in 2009. Yet given our review of past PEPs and PERs which did not show significant award fee deductions for safety, as well as the continued safety problems at Los Alamos, it is clear that NNSA has not been strong enough in holding Los Alamos accountable for its mistakes. One of the reasons PEPs and PERs should not be obscured from public view is because they are important for determining how NNSA holds the labs accountable for their management of safety issues, something we don't believe is happening in light of this memo.

Delaying the release of PEPs and PERs is not the only recent DOE decision that threatens public and federal oversight of nuclear weapons labs. NNSA has placed a six-month moratorium on NNSA-initiated functional assessments, reviews, evaluations, and inspections. In addition, the Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS), DOE's independent oversight body has not scheduled any oversight inspections for 2010.

It is clear that now is not the time to experiment with models that reduce government oversight: NNSA should reverse its decisions to withhold the PEPs and PERs; and to initiate an oversight moratorium. The HSS should also immediately schedule an inspection at Los Alamos.

In addition, the clear systemic management problems at Los Alamos require stringent oversight and accountability, and we ask that you designate a White House-level staff person to ensure that these problems at Los Alamos and the other nuclear weapons labs are not allowed to persist.

Thank you for your consideration of the matter. Please contact us with any questions or if you need any additional information at (202) 347-1122.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

CC:
Senator Carl Levin
Senator John McCain
Representative Henry Waxman
Representative Bart Stupak
Representative Joe Barton

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