Thursday, October 2, 2014

DOE Blames LANL Management

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of the Inspector General issued DOE/IG-0922, dated September 30, 2014, entitled: "Management Alert / Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) – Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)." See www.doe/oig for the entire report.

 This latest "Management Alert" is part of DOE's ongoing attempt to cope with a radiation release, which occurred at its Carlsbad, NM, WIPP facility, in February 2014. Although still uncertain of the exact cause of that release, DOE is sure that the spontaneous rupturing of a stored drum, containing radioactive waste previously packaged at LANL, was the proximate cause.

 Moreover, since this was the first publicly acknowledged radiation release from WIPP, it is especially important for DOE to take prompt corrective actions. Consequently, even though still unsure as to which chemical reactions inside the drum led to drum rupture, DOE now blames the fact of drum rupture on management failures in LANL's Environmental Management Directorate. LANL's Director McMillan  seems to agree, since he has just reassigned four senior LANL EM managers.

 Indeed, LANL has had a many year-long history of critical problems. It had even once been thought that such problems were really local management problems, the result of a defective local management culture. Moreover, it was hypothesized that such problems were also owing to ineffective oversight by the long-time LANL contract manager, the University of California (UC.)

 UC, under contract to the federal government, had been managing LANL since its inception in 1943, until termination of its contract in 2006. UC had executed this contract for ~60 years as a public service, and often at a financial loss.

 During the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, however, it was argued that management problems at LANL were really the result of inadequate management incentives; i.e., low management salaries. Subsequently, the contract was passed from UC to a for-profit entity, LANS-LLC, led by Bechtel Corp.

 With LANS-LLC, local management incentives increased sharply. For example, the LANL Director's annual compensation package moved up from ~$200,000, under UC, to ~$1.2 million, under the new for-profit contractor. The number of senior managers also increased sharply. In order to pay for this management windfall, which amounted altogether to ~$10 million, ~100 non-management LANL employees had to be dismissed. Nevertheless, the frequency of occurrence of critical problems at LANL did not seem to change.

 Interestingly, in its zeal to privatize functions of the federal government, the G. W. Bush Administration also moved the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) contract from UC, where it had been since the founding of that Laboratory in 1953, to a private sector entity. Just as at LANL, senior management salaries and bonuses soared at LLNL, when the contract with UC ended in 2007. However, one would be hard put to notice any change in LLNL performance as a result of the new management incentives.

 One should also not fail to notice the situation at Sandia National Laboratory (SNL.) Here, local management problems had never been of much public interest, and the SNL contract had long been let in the private sector. Nevertheless, during the G. W. Bush Administration senior manager compensation at SNL lurched upward, in order to bring it up to the new levels being set at LANL and LLNL. Today, the SNL Director takes home in excess of $2 million each year.

 Thus, aspiring managers' interest in the nuclear weapons industry has been very well maintained.

 Meanwhile, critical problems at LANL seem to continue unabated. Perhaps the local management culture has somehow not yet been corrected. Or maybe DOE is looking for a convenient scapegoat, in order to deflect renewed attention from its own well-known management failures.