Watchdog group calls for tougher Los Alamos performance standards

By David McGlinchey

January 12, 2005

A prominent government watchdog group called on the Energy Department last week to implement stringent and meaningful performance standards at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department agency, is seeking a contractor for the Los Alamos facility. That search-launched late last year-marks the end of a 61-year run by the University of California as the uncontested operator of Los Alamos.

Researchers and scientists at the facility deal with the nation's foremost technologies, including nuclear weaponry. In recent years, however, the laboratory has been plagued with security scandals and management lapses.

"Consider the award fee as a true award for performance and not an assumed payment," the Project on Government Oversight stated in a Jan. 6 memo to the Energy Department. "If the award fee were treated as just that-as an award, and not as a given-it could be a valuable tool in encouraging superior performance."

Energy Department officials did not reply Wednesday to questions about the memo.

POGO officials said the University of California continued to receive performance bonuses, despite repeated shortcomings.

"If the contractor performs poorly, either in its science programs or management, the award fee should be substantially reduced, if awarded at all," the POGO memo noted. "If these standards were upheld, it might even be appropriate to increase the size of the potential award, more in line with Department of Defense laboratories."

The watchdog group called for strict Energy Department evaluation of Los Alamos management. The group criticized the current process, which relies heavily on "self-assessment" by the facility contractor. POGO also called for independent evaluation of the laboratory's science programs.

"Currently, the science is evaluated by peers at Los Alamos. This is hardly an independent review," the memorandum stated. "The award fee must be a true award for meeting or exceeding expectations, not an assumption that is rubber stamped by self-interested parties."

POGO officials also called for fines against the future contractor to punish safety and security violations. In the past, some safety-related fines have been waived because the University of California is a nonprofit organization. There are no existing fines for security violations. The watchdog groups said both types of violations should incur fines, even if the future contractor is a nonprofit.

By David McGlinchey

January 12, 2005