Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has had two major wildland fires — the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 and the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. Each fire burned partially on Lab property within miles of several nuclear facilities. LANL’s wildfire prevention should be 100% in place and constantly updated. But a February 1, 2021, report by the DOE Inspector General found that activities designed to reduce the impact from wildland fire had not been fully implemented at LANL. The DOE-IG found that while the contractor, Triad, had identified fire risks, it had not completely implemented all measures to prevent serious fires.
In a recent report, the Department Of Energy’s Office of Inspector General (IG) found issues with the way Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) keeps track of controlled substances such as cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine. The IG found that LANL staff had not managed controlled substances in accordance with applicable Federal laws and regulations.
The IG also found that LANL staff had mislabeled procurement records of these drugs, kept inaccurate inventories, and retained controlled substances well beyond the conclusion of experiments. The IG determined that Los Alamos did not have appropriate “processes, procedures, or controls in place to monitor, track, account for, and dispose of controlled substances.”
On December 6, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) declared multiple violations at both the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). NMED plans to fine WIPP $17.7 million and LANL $36.6 million due to major procedural problems related to the handling of radioactive transuranic (TRU) wastes that contributed to two significant incidents at WIPP earlier this year.
In addition to “failure to adequately characterize waste” and other violations, LANL was cited for the processing of nitrate-bearing wastes and adding neutralizing agents to that waste stream. LANL treated this procedure as if it was outside the state hazardous waste permit, but NMED determined that these operations were not exempt. LANL treated 100s of waste drums without a permit, and one of these was apparently the cause of the February 14, 2014 radioactive release at WIPP that contaminated 21 workers.
WIPP was cited for, among other violations, not notifying NMED in a timely fashion of the February 14 radioactive release.
The $36.6 million fine at LANL is based on up to $10,000 per day per non-compliance, but still represents less than 2% of the Lab’s $2.1 billion annual budget. The contractor that runs the Lab, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, is eligible to earn $57 million in bonus award fees for the fiscal year that ended last September 30th. The fines should be taken out of the bonuses.
NMED stipulated that the penalties couldn’t be paid for out of designated funding for environmental cleanup or operational needs at LANL and WIPP.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico applauds these efforts to hold the Department of Energy accountable in New Mexico and we urge NMED to not negotiate these relatively modest fines down, as is typically the case. These fines should be paid out of the contractor’s profits. The Lab had this waste for over 20 years and still could not get it right. We hope these NMED fines are a wake up call for safe, comprehensive cleanup of all the wastes left from the Cold War at the Los Alamos Lab.”
LANL Finds a Way to Very Efficiently Waste $400,000
The Department of Energy (DOE) recently released an Audit Report on “The Department’s Fleet Vehicle Sustainability Initiatives at Selected Locations”. One of the locations investigated was Los Alamos National Laboratory. The report states that LANL leased 522 flex-fuel vehicles that were routinely fueled with regular gasoline instead of alternative fuels such as E-85. Sadly, DOE paid a premium of about $427,900 to acquire these flex-fuel vehicles rather than purchasing conventionally-fueled vehicles. (The report stated that $700,000 was spent for 854 flex-fuel vehicles, which was for 522 at LANL and 332 at Bonneville. I had use a simple ratio to arrive at the $427,900 average split for LANL because the DOE IG would not give the actual breakouts.)
By acquiring flex-fuel vehicles but continuing to fuel these vehicles with petroleum at LANL and Bonneville, the Department is not maximizing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. DOE paid at least $427,900 for flex-fuel vehicles at LANL; however, failed to obtain the environmental benefits or further Departmental goals of increasing alternative fuel use and reducing petroleum use.
As of September 2012, LANL’s overall fleet had decreased by 9 vehicles, while the number of flex-fuel vehicles had grown to 587. According to LANL officials, LANL used a tanker truck to bring fuel to LANL to fill approximately 65 security vehicles with ethanol fuel. The tanker truck operated approximately 3 hours per day, 5 days per week, and the weekly labor costs to operate the truck were $1,200. Additionally, LANL spent $3,760 on maintenance and repair of the truck in calendar year 2012. The total cost of maintaining and operating the truck, excluding fuel costs, was approximately $66,000 for calendar year 2012. But this tanker truck, or one like it was never used for the regular flex-fuel vehicles.
In addition, the Lab had trouble letting go of unneeded vehicles. LANL retained about 25 percent of their fleets (269) and other mobile equipment even though they did not meet minimum utilization standards. Despite retaining underutilized vehicles, LANL actually increased its inventory of other motorized equipment (small motorized equipment not suitable for use on public roadways).
To be considered fully utilized at LANL, a vehicle must travel an average of 205 miles per month or make 6 trips per working day. According to documents provided by LANL officials, a utilization rate of less than 93 percent, meaning that less than 93 percent of fleet vehicles meet these utilization standards, is considered “unsatisfactory.” During FYs 2009 through 2011, LANL’s utilization rate was between 75 and 77 percent. For example, in FY 2011, LANL had a utilization rate of 76 percent meaning that 269 of 1,115 vehicles, or approximately 24 percent, were retained even though those vehicles did not meet the local utilization objectives.
LANL submitted written justification for retaining only 35 of the 269 underutilized vehicles. However, some of the justifications were very vague and did not sufficiently explain why the user needed to retain the vehicles instead of downsizing their fleet. One justification for retaining two underutilized vehicles stated, “because of the amount of employees and locations of employees, they would like to keep both vehicles. The plan is to switch them every 6 months to make sure we put enough mileage on both vehicles.” When addressing underutilized vehicles, the DOE IG noted the emphasis was often on increasing utilization as opposed to downsizing the fleet and, therefore, reducing costs. In regard to eight other underutilized vehicles, the justification stated, “all managers have devised a plan to increase the utilization of their vehicles and do not plan to turn any in at this time.”
Managing a fleet of vehicles is not rocket science. Hopefully this wasted money will be reimbursed by the operating contractor.
The Oct 2013 Department of Energy Inspector General (DOE IG) audit report “The Resumption of Criticality Experiments Facility Operations at the Nevada National Security Site” informs us that a move from Technical Area 18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos to the Nevada National Security Site, like many other DOE projects, is taking longer than planned. The report didn’t mention it but it, but the move is, no doubt, costing us more, too.
The move centers on relocating four criticality assemblies. Criticality experiments use “assemblies” of enriched uranium and/or plutonium to create self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions. These assemblies differ from nuclear reactors in that the nuclear reaction is not sustained (assuming there are no accidents). Another significant difference is that the critical assemblies have no containment or shielding.
A DOE fact sheet tells us that:
[National Criticality Experiments Research Center] NCERC contains the largest collection of nuclear critical mass assembly machines in the western hemisphere. These assemblies can be broadly categorized as benchmark critical assemblies, general-purpose assemblies, and fast- burst assemblies that were designed to accommodate a broad range of experiments. Godiva is a bare metal uranium fast burst assembly designed to provide an intense burst of neutrons during an extremely short pulse. Flattop is a unique fast-spectrum assembly used for cross section testing and training. Planet and Comet are general purpose vertical assembly machines that are designed to accommodate experiments in which neutron multiplication is measured as a function of separation distance between experimental components. Fuel materials include uranium, plutonium, and neptunium.
Clearly, safety and careful planning would be of the utmost importance with these operations, which include conducting nuclear criticality experiments along with hands-on, criticality safety, and emergency response training.
The fact sheet gives the reason for the move as, “As a result of the extensive inventory of SNM and the resulting requirements for physical security and operational safety, it was decided to relocate…”
The DOE IG report also explains that criticality experiments at Los Alamos were halted and moved to Nevada “Citing safety and security concerns in 2004…”
But both of these accounts leave out some interesting history. A Project On Government Oversight (POGO) article gives an account of a security training exercise at TA-18 at Los Alamos –
In 1997, a special unit of the U.S. Army Special Forces was the adversary during a force-on-force exercise. The normal theft scenario is to “steal” enough SNM for a crude nuclear weapon that would fit in rucksacks. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, this exercise required that they “steal” more HEU than a person can carry. Not to be outmaneuvered, the Army Special Forces commandos went to Home Depot and bought a garden cart. They attacked TA-18, loaded the garden cart with nuclear materials, and left the facility. “[T]he invaders reached the simulated objective of the game: enough nuclear material to make an atom bomb.”
And they did so with relative ease. As the Wall Street Journal reported,
“The Garden Cart attackers. . .used snipers hidden in the hills to “kill” the first guards [protective forces] who arrived. Because they happened to be the commanders of the guard force, the rest of the force was thrown into disarray. Many of them also were “killed” as they arrived in small groups down a narrow road leading to TA-18. ‘[The Special Forces] took them out piecemeal as they came in,’ says one participant in the game, whose account wasn’t challenged by DOE or lab officials.”
As the Wall Street Journal further noted, “The 1997 mock invasion succeeded despite months of guard [protective forces] training and dozens of computerized battle simulations showing that newly beefed-up defenders of the facility would win.”
In April 2000, then DOE Secretary Bill Richardson ordered that TA-18 be shut down and all the nuclear materials be completely removed by 2004. So instead of completing the move the 2004, DOE and Los Alamos Lab had only started the move by 2004. Nuclear Watch NM voiced our concerns many times, including when we learned that a Federal Safety Board concluded fatal doses were possible if there was an accident.
As far as operational safety goes, neither the fact sheet nor the DOE IG Report mentioned that TA-18 was intentionally located at the bottom of Parajito Canyon so that the 200-foot canyon walls could provide some natural radiation shielding. This meant that TA-18, with its estimated three tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, sat in a flood plain.
The results of the DOE IG audit states that many of the former capabilities of the were restored in Nevada. However, several problems resulted in delays in restoring the full array of experimental capabilities. NNSA was unable to authorize operations until May 2011, approximately 1 year after the planned date. The program experienced further delays in the start-up activities of each criticality machine, with completion of all planned startup activities for one machine delayed about 2 years.
DOE has not been able to restore full capability to perform plutonium-based criticality experiments.
The Report results state that delays occurred because contractors had not developed adequate procedures for correcting concerns identified during the process to authorize the start-ups. Also, procured safety equipment did not meet standards. Additionally, the Report claimed that DOE had not ensured effective management of the multiple contractors involved and had struggled to successfully integrate and resolve issues between the multiple contractors. Which is odd, because there were only four contractors mentioned in the report – Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Security Technology, LLC, Wackenhut Services International. Exactly what Wackenhut (which provides security, fire rescue and aviation services) did for the move was not stated.
We do appreciate the focus on safety, but if these operations are so important, DOE must emphasize completing the job to avoid wasting any more taxpayers’ money. Once again the Department of Energy proves that its contractors cannot juggle safety, schedule, and cost without dropping as least two. And apparently DOE has trouble efficiently juggling contractors, which is too bad because contractors attempt to perform over 90% of DOE’s work.
How Do You Spell PASSWORD? LANL Gets Bad Cyber Report
It turns out that cyber security for running supercomputing networks at a national nuclear weapons laboratory may not be much different than cyber security for the rest of us emailing, social networking, and watching kitten videos. All of us need to reasonably vigilant with passwords and software updates. The difference is that when you and I use lame passwords and don’t update our software, we don’t put national security at risk.
The DOE Investigator General (DOE IG) released a report that identified continuing concerns in LANL cyber security program. These concerns have been going on for years. A 2006 report revealed that critical cyber security internal controls and safeguards were not functioning as intended and monitoring by both laboratory and Federal officials was not adequate. Weaknesses with LANL’s cyber security program were also identified at least as far back as 2002.
A temporary shutdown of the Lab for nearly seven months (July 2004 to January 2005) because of a security flap might have cost as much as $370 million, but the exact amount can’t be calculated because of the way the lab recorded its activities according to General Accounting Office congressional investigators in 2005. Apparently, exact amounts are hard for the Lab to come up with. The DOE IG, for its cyber report, said, “Although LANL spends a significant amount of funds on information technology (IT) activities, we were unable to obtain an accurate amount due to the Laboratory’s limited ability to track its IT spending.”
How do you spell PASSWORD?
The DOE IG found that, “Network servers and devices were configured with default or easily guessed login credentials or required no authentication. For example, 15 web applications and 5 servers were configured with default or blank passwords.” Additionally, two network servers had the possibility to accept connections from anybody without the use of authentication or similar access controls. Also, 10 network servers could have allowed unauthorized remote control.
Those pesky software updates –
And, “LANL had not fully implemented existing security patch management and vulnerability management procedures. Specifically, tests of 191 network servers supporting LANL’s financial applications and data or providing core network services revealed that 73 (38 percent) were running operating systems and client applications without current security patches…” The DOE IG also found that LANL continued to maintain a significant number of operating systems, client applications and other various software that was no longer supported.
To be fair, the DOE IG reported that LANL “improved the protection of national security systems and data through the elimination or disablement of data ports on machines containing classified information.” This partially refers to the Lab’s low-tech program of injecting a popular two-stage epoxy into USB ports. I’m not sure that qualifies as an IT solution.
No passwords. No updates. How does this happen at nuclear weapons laboratory? Two things – First, the Lab contractor does not perform. Second, oversight is lacking. The DOE IG stated that, “The issues identified occurred, in part, because of a lack of effective monitoring and oversight of LANL’s cyber security program by the Los Alamos Site Office, including approval of practices that were less rigorous than those required by Federal directives. “ The Los Alamos Site Office is a DOE office and is tasked with providing immediate federal oversight of the Lab and making sure that our taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely.
Unfortunately, DOE continues to relax its grip of oversight of the Labs. Continuing cyber security issues are only one manifestation of this letting go. We need a strong DOE Secretary, a strong NNSA administrator, and strong Congressional oversight as we head towards zero nukes if we hope to hold the nuclear weapons complex contractor accountable.