Policy Letter

POGO Urges House Subcommittee to Strengthen Independent Oversight of Nuke Weapons Labs

Chairman Cliff Stearns

Ranking Member Diana DeGette

Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

House Energy and Commerce Committee

2125 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Stearns and Ranking Member DeGette:

As the Subcommittee prepares to hold a hearing on the challenges facing the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) would like to draw your attention to a recent government report, the findings of which exemplify the need for greater oversight of the nation’s troubled nuclear weapons laboratories.

According to independent government advisory panel the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, one of the nation’s main nuclear weapons laboratories sharply underestimated the amount of radiation that could leak from one of its facilities as a result of an earthquake-induced fire.[1] As POGO reported last week, the Safety Board found that the radiation emitted from the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility could be more than four times as intense as the Laboratory predicted in a safety analysis last year.[2] The Safety Board said that the Laboratory’s safety analysis was performed incorrectly and included “multiple, substantial deficiencies.”[3]

The Safety Board has raised similar concerns about faulty safety analyses since at least 2008.[4] Its findings call into question the safety and reliability of a laboratory that says its work includes ensuring the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile. As a result of the Safety Board’s independent oversight, the Laboratory—which stands near a series of fault lines and houses four metric tons of plutonium—will be required to upgrade the Plutonium Facility using the highest safety standards. The findings were reported widely by the Associated Press.[5]

The report comes at a time when the nuclear weapons laboratories are pushing for greater freedom from oversight. However, it is evident that more, not less, independent oversight is necessary to ensure the safety of workers and the public, security of nuclear materials, and responsible spending on nuclear weapons.

The Government Accountability Office has long called the contractor-run nuclear weapons laboratories a “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.[6] And POGO has been uncovering oversight problems born of self-policing at the laboratories for years. As POGO reported this May, the Safety Board, the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General, and other government offices reported dozens of health, safety, security, and financial issues at the nuclear laboratories in past couple of years that oversight by laboratory management missed.[7] The issues uncovered by independent oversight range from over $10 million of “questioned and unresolved costs” at Sandia National Laboratory,[8] to safety lapses that led to workers being overexposed to beryllium at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.[9]

POGO is concerned by proposed rollbacks of oversight at the nuclear weapons laboratories, including several sections in the House version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.[10] Self-policing by the contractors who operate the nation’s nuclear weapons puts us all at risk. We therefore urge you to stop the rollbacks and to strengthen independent oversight of the nuclear weapons complex.

We would welcome an opportunity to discuss this with you. To reach us, please contact Angela Canterbury or Mia Steinle at [email protected], [email protected], or (202) 347-1122.


Danielle Brian

Executive Director

cc: Chairman Fred Upton and Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, House Energy and Commerce Committee

House Energy and Commerce Committee Members

[ 1] Letter from Peter S. Winokur, Chairman of Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, to the Honorable Thomas P. D’Agostino, Administrator of National Nuclear Security Administration, about approved safety basis for the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, June 18, 2012. http://www.dnfsb.gov/sites/default/files/Board%20Activities/Reports/Staff%20Issue%20Reports/Los%20Alamos%20National%20Laboratory/2012/sir_2012618_19541_65.pdf (Downloaded July 17, 2012) (Hereinafter Letter from Peter S. Winokur)

[ 2] Mia Steinle, “Nuclear Weapons Lab Underestimates Risk of Radiation Leak, Study Finds,” Project On Government Oversight, July 10, 2012. http://pogoblog.typepad.com/pogo/2012/07/by-mia-steinle-one-of-the-nations-main-nuclear-weapons-labs-has-sharply-underestimated-the-amount-of-radiation-that-could.html

[ 3] Letter from Peter S. Winokur.

[ 4] Letter from A.J. Eggenberger, Chairman of Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, to the Honorable Thomas P. D’Agostino, Administrator of National Nuclear Security Administration, about the development of a safety basis for the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 30, 2008. http://www.dnfsb.gov/sites/default/files/Board%20Activities/Reports/Staff%20Issue%20Reports/Los%20Alamos%20National%20Laboratory/2008/sir_2008530_4959_65.pdf (Downloaded July 17, 2012)

[ 5] Jeri Clausing, “Oversight board questions nuke lab radiation risk,” BloombergBusinessweek, July 12, 2012. http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-07-12/oversight-board-questions-nuke-lab-radiation-risk (Downloaded July 17, 2012)

[ 6] Government Accountability Office, “DOE’s Contract Management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management.” http://www.gao.gov/highrisk/risks/federal-contracting/doe.php (Downloaded July 17, 2012)

[ 7] Mia Steinle and Angela Canterbury, “How Not to Make Us Safer: Reduce Oversight of our Nuclear Weapons,” Project On Government Oversight, May 21, 2012. http://pogoblog.typepad.com/pogo/2012/05/how-not-to-make-us-safer-reduce-oversight-of-our-nuclear-weapons.html

[ 8] Memorandum from David Sedillo, Director of NNSA & Science Audits Division of Office of Inspector General, to Manager of Sandia Office Site, regarding report on “Questioned, Unresolved and Potentially Unallowable Costs Incurred by Sandia Corporation during Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008,” November 5, 2010. http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/igprod/documents/OAS-L-11-01.pdf (Downloaded July 17, 2012)

[ 9] Department of Energy Office of Health, Safety and Security, “Fact Sheet – LLNS Beryllium Consent Order.” http://www.hss.doe.gov/enforce/docs/consentorders/LLNL_fact_sheet.pdf (Downloaded July 17, 2012)

[ 10] These measures include Sec. 3114, which establishes a council of the contractors that run the nuclear weapons laboratories, allowing them to make governance recommendations to the Secretary of Energy; Sec. 3115, which prepares to transfer oversight authority for the labs from the Department of Energy solely to the National Nuclear Security Administration; and Sec. 3202, which amends Sec. 315 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2286d) to require the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to submit drafts of its independent recommendations to the Secretary of Energy for review. U.S. Congress, “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013” (H.R. 4310), Introduced March 29, 2012, by Representative Howard McKeon. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr4310eh/pdf/BILLS-112hr4310eh.pdf (Downloaded July 17, 2012)