WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that federal bureaucracy can be inefficient, wasteful and dysfunctional, but when the cumulative effect of mistakes at a major nuclear weapons laboratory starts resembling a Three Stooges shtick, it’s anything but funny. It’s dangerous.
Despite being a major component (and birthplace) of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the lab is not (mis)managed solely by the federal government. The longstanding problems at the New Mexico campus, which include enough safety and security lapses  to make one’s hair curl, have taken place under the stewardship of a private global construction giant, Bechtel Corporation, which leads the public-private partnership called Los Alamos National Security LLC. This also includes the University of California, which botched its own 62-year management of the lab but was taken on as a partner anyway. Two other private contractors—BWX Technologies and Washington Group International (now AECOM)—form the rest of the enterprise, which beat out other major privateers, such as Lockheed Martin, for the $2.2 billion contract in 2006.
Bechtel, the largest civil engineering and construction contractor in the United States, brought in an annual revenue stream of $32.3 billion as of 2015. It raked in billions of military contracts during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, scooping up a $680 million deal to “rebuild” only a month after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite a long record  of cost-overruns, mismanagement, environmental violations, and even fraud in its many war and domestic contracts, Bechtel has soared on to bigger and better things, today holding an unprecedented $10 billion contract  to build Saudi Arabia’s first underground transportation system in Riyadh, and a planet full of other projects, including those involving the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The Los Alamos partnership is destined to be just a footnote in the company’s 120-year history , however. In fact, Bechtel’s stewardship was so bad the consortium is losing its contract in 2018 and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that oversees the development and modernization of the nation’s nuclear warheads, officially started the bid process for the new contract in late June.
The question is if privatizing the industry proved less safe and more expensive than a government run operation, will another private contractor be any better? Furthermore, seeing how the DOE, NNSA—even the U.S. Congress—fell down in its oversight responsibilities, who can be confident that the government can turn this lab, or any other that has been farmed out to industry, around?
“The management problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory are so deep and structural, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and they won’t be fixed by picking one contractor over another. The entire contracting arrangements need to be completely rethought and congressional oversight committees need to do their duty,” says Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group , an Albuquerque-based non-profit that since 1989 has been relentless in its pursuit to cast sunlight on the lab’s activities, including its contract and program boondoggles and security breaches.
“There has been little accountability for mistakes for literally hundreds of fiascos and goofball management decisions,” Mello told TAC last week. “We have to start with parsing the elements of the mission and the presumption that a lot of people can get rich while doing very little work at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory. The culture of Los Alamos is deeply arrogant and to bring back a culture of public service and intellectual integrity will require more institutional examination than has ever happened.”
For their part the NNSA and Bechtel have played down the connection between the partnership’s well-documented safety violations  and cost overruns and the loss of the contract. “This has been forecasted long ago,” NNSA spokesman Greg Wolf said in June. “This was coming and the timing is coincidental.”
But in 2015 it was made clear that the partnership did not meet expectations and per the contract, failed to secure enough “award terms” that would allow them to extend the contract beyond the time it was set to expire in FY 2017.
Mello makes no bones about the the fact he is in favor of nuclear disarmament, in part because he believes the nuclear weapons industry has become a self-perpetuating bureaucracy forever in search of “make work” to justify its increasing federal budget (President Trump has proposed a 7.8 percent increase in the NNSA budget to $13.9 billion in FY18). This is not much different than the rest of the federal bureaucracy, but unlike other agencies, the NNSA involves “the apocalyptic power of nuclear weapons” and the constant threat of war to sustain itself, says Mello.
“It’s where Dr. Strangelove lives,” he said, referring to the 1964 political satire  in which weak politicians and zealous military generals, advised by a diabolical wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi played by Peter Sellers, buffoon their way into a global nuclear holocaust. “He didn’t really go away, he took a job at the (Los Alamos) weapons lab and in the upper levels of the Air Force . That’s their problem. They’re an opaque part of the military that has an outsized role in maintaining a posture that keeps the threat of nuclear annihilation alive.”
Whether you agree with disarmament supporters or come down on the side that believes the nation’s nuclear arsenal must be modernized in order to maintain the Nuclear Triad and its role as a strategic deterrent (particularly now, when tensions with the only other country that can match’s America’s nuclear stockpile, Russia, are uncomfortably high), mounting evidence that what’s going on at Los Alamos is counter-productive on any front is hard to ignore.
On the safety and security front: numerous incidents reported and cited in investigations regarding employee exposure to radioactive material, including plutonium, arsenic and beryllium. Unsafe handling of radioactive materials seems to be a chronic issue. In 2013, in order to avoid missing a deadline, the lab reportedly cut corners to ship a highly acidic batch of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant  near Carlsbad, N.M. To get it there fast, it mixed the waste with organic kitty litter and a neutralizer, turning it into a highly volatile material akin to a plastic explosive. When it got to Carlsbad it did just that—in 2014 the buried 55-gallon drum exploded underground, exposing 20 workers and shutting the plant for two years. The clean-up cost of at least $1 billon was billed to the American taxpayer.
In 2011, workers were cited for mishandling eight plutonium rods—putting them side-by-side on a table, described as a no-no of epic proportions for its potential to “fission uncontrollably, spontaneously sparking a nuclear chain reaction.” The incident, and others, eventually led to the 2013 shutdown of plutonium handling operations at Los Alamos, known as the PF-4 facility. This, of course, has halted the controversial pit production written about in these pages here  and here . It also meant the loss of an estimated $1.36 million in productivity with no end in sight. As the DOE said this year  the lab did not “meet expectations” on its safety scorecard and program compliance record. The lab is still not open for full production as a result.
This June, the Center for Public Integrity released a damning report  citing chapter and verse all of the safety foibles and bad reviews, including 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the last 11 years—all under the Bechtel-led auspices. The Center for Public Integrity says safety is taking a back seat to meeting deadlines set by the private contractors. Others say the contractors have been “chasing lucrative government bonuses tied to those goals.”
But what about cost? The move toward privatization was supposed to save taxpayers money but as the watchdogs point out, it’s done anything but. As the Santa Fe New Mexican  reported early this year, the management fee incurred by the government increased from $8 million in 2005 to $80 million by 2010, while the number of upper-level managers making more than $200,000 a year tripled.
Just as bad are the lab’s boondoggles. As TAC reported in 2011, a facility that was supposed to increase pit (the cores of a nuclear weapon) production to 80 pits a year (per congressional mandate) ballooned to $6 billion in projected costs and spent $500 million in the planning phase before it was cancelled amid widespread criticism. That didn’t stop the lab from embarking on a new plan, one that is expected to cost $3 billion despite all of the aforementioned safety problems that already exist and have yet to be fixed.
Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight says she has little confidence a new contractor will do any better after the Bechtel gang leaves town. There are less than two dozen contractors in this field, and they have all worked together in some configuration or another, even on the current contract. The big ones have their lobbyists in Washington to help pull the strings. She points to Lockheed Martin, which got a mere ‘slap on the wrist’  for using federal funds to lobby Washington for no-bid contracts, which is illegal. It still manages the Sandia National Laboratory to the tune of $2.4 billion a year. (CORRECTION 7/15: Lockheed’s contract expired in April. Sandia is now run by National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia (NTESS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International.)
“I don’t see any of these concerns changing just because there is a changing of the guard,” she tells TAC. “What needs to happen is the DOE needs to get more engaged in its management and oversight role.” She said the lack of accountability has been appalling, taking nearly a decade before Bechtel was penalized. “They got a lot of leeway and a lot of chances before the government stepped in and said, ‘enough.’ How much are taxpayers paying for before the government says, ‘enough’’’?
Mello points out that without stronger government oversight, a change in the lazy, pass-the-buck culture, and a true ‘free market’ approach that breaks up the small number of contractors’ grip on the industry and makes them truly accountable, the status quo will remain.
“In the absence of such a profound self-examination the only conclusion we can make is that Los Alamos cannot be reformed, it’s just going to be a mess,” he said. “And it will be just a matter of time before there’s more accidents, more project management failures, hundreds if not billions wasted.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC