The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has received a letter addressed to Congress from “current and former DOE employees” (pdf) calling for an investigation into persistent mismanagement at the NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office (LASO). Their concerns include understaffing, cronyism, constant and haphazard reorganizations, and inadequate training of employees. The letter draws from a wealth of knowledge and experience, and the issues raised deserve to be taken seriously:
The "we" who have authored this letter constitute a group of current and former employees of the Los Alamos Site Office (LASO) and the New Mexico DOE Complex. As a group our personnel have a sum of more that 100 years of experience. We can say with confidence that we have never in our careers, either in public service or the private sector witnessed such gross mismanagement as seen at the Los Alamos Site Office.
Last year, the University of California won, along with Bechtel, a questionable competition to continue their mismanagement of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) with the stated purpose of correcting the problems that they, in part, created. The NNSA initiated a “pilot program” shortly thereafter that handed over contract oversight responsibility to the contractor itself. This program rendered the Site Office virtually powerless to correct problems and it’s at the root of many of the issues discussed in the letter to Congress.
The "pilot program" makes little sense considering the track records of the contractors. The University of California already had a proven history of mismanagement at Los Alamos before the DOE decided to open their contract to competitive bidding. Bechtel, UC’s current partner, not only has its own checkered contract history, but has often used its political clout to actively dodge accountability.
Thus it's no surprise that safety and security debacles continue unabated: the partial blinding of an employee with a laser, incidents of losing classified information (e.g., CREM DE METH), americium contamination in four states that cost the governement $1 million in clean-up costs, and a nine-month shutdown of the lab due to lax security and safety that cost taxpayers roughly $500 million.
The employee letter states:
Given past problems, one must question why the LASO was thought to be the appropriate site for implementation of a pilot of reduced contractor oversight as a way of doing business. Why select a site that is-known to have had a history of serious management problems and serious problems with business systems. Audits and review of other documentation will verify the lack of a viable business system at LANL.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last fall, POGO also addressed the Site Office’s “pilot program.”
The problem is clear: the lack of qualified safety basis experts in the Site Offices; the fact that DOE does not verify whether the safety directions created by the federal DOE overseers have been implemented by the contractor; and the decision-makers at DOE Headquarters do not support their people in the field when there is a conflict between the contractor and DOE. For instance, Headquarters assured the Los Alamos site office that it would get additional staff to work on safety verification. However, that additional staff was never provided. Furthermore, former Los Alamos safety director Chris Steele was transferred because of complaints from the contractor, who said he was being too tough on them. The solution is not self-policing by the contractor: it is to have a sufficient number of adequately-qualified safety experts, and the support for those experts from DOE Headquarters. Oversight of contractors is an inherently governmental function.
On January 30 of this year, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian testified before a House subcommittee once again reiterating that the situation has yet to improve. She stated, “In fact, I fear things may actually be getting worse. Not only has NNSA has failed to correct security issues, but the agency has determined that it wants even less oversight of Los Alamos and has implemented a new pilot program in which oversight has been handed over to the contractor itself.”
Many of the DOE employees’ concerns are widely known and pre-date the “pilot program.” Retired Admiral Henry Chiles, presiding over a Security Workforce Panel, released a report in 2004 (pdf) that documented personnel problems within NNSA, particularly those related to understaffing. The following year, retired Admiral Richard Mies led an independent review of NNSA security operations at the national laboratories. His subsequent report (pdf) also detailed an extensive lack of proper training, oversight, and accountability.
Yet while paying lip-service to these and other reports’ recommendations, the DOE and NNSA have failed to correct the underlying problems. At the same hearing where POGO’s Brian noted that the situations may be getting worse, NNSA Acting Administrator Thomas D’Agostino persisted in the belief (pdf) that improvements were already underway. His conclusion:
We have received a number of reports from the Government Accountability Office, the DOE Inspector General, and the DOE Office of Independent Oversight. Like the Chiles and Mies studies, we have addressed the recommendations in these reports and have made major improvements.
The recent letter from “current and former DOE employees” proves D’Agostino’s conclusion to be false. POGO supports their request for a congressional investigation into the matter. The “pilot program” has been a disaster and should be terminated immediately. The entire senior management staff should also be held accountable for LANL and LASO's failures.
-- John Pruett