Memo questions Los Alamos lab’s control of plutonium

Warning signs dot a fence around Los Alamos' Technical Area 21. Warning signs dot a fence around Los Alamos' Technical Area 21. Julie Graber/AP

In a Feb. 23 memo to the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials in the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration said inaccurate inventory records at the lab's plutonium research, development and processing facility raised doubts about the lab's ability to "deter and detect theft and diversion of special nuclear material."

The memo was in response to the findings of a special review team's assessment of an "incident of security concern" involving amounts of nuclear material "that exceeded alarm limits with no suspicion of theft or diversion" earlier this month.

The memo was leaked to the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington. It makes clear that problems at the lab have been apparent at least since last June.

Donald L. Winchell Jr., manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Los Alamos site office was a principal author of the memo. He could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The memo describes: "the lack of qualified and experienced personnel in critical positions; inattention to performance indicators; lack of an approved and compliant [nuclear material control and accountability] plan; lack of procedures for key processes; conduct of operations deficiencies; and inadequate quality assurance practices."

Nonetheless, Energy awarded the Los Alamos National Security LLC, the contractor that runs the lab for the government, a performance bonus of $1.4 million last year, said Ingrid Drake, an investigator at POGO.

The performance award was for security during the 2007-2008 period and included criteria related to nuclear material control and accountability, raising questions about the integrity of contract oversight, Drake said.

Officials at NNSA's Los Alamos site office were not available to discuss the performance award or issues identified in the memo on Friday.

According to Drake, two managers responsible for the nuclear material control and accountability program -- one contractor and one government official -- were removed from their positions as a result of the review. Government Executive was unable to confirm the nature of the dismissals on Friday.

A press release issued by the lab's communications office on Thursday said, "The error relates to internal inventory and accounting that documents movement of sensitive materials within a small portion of technical area 55, the laboratory's plutonium research, development and processing facility."

"There is 100 percent certainty that no sensitive materials left the facility," the release said. Jeff Berger, director of communications at Los Alamos, said the problems with inventory records have "nothing to do with what enters or leaves the site. That process is sound and secure."

"Separately, the laboratory has in place a layered security and safeguards system that prevents unauthorized removal of material. An integrated series of sensors, monitors, and administrative control processes, combined with armed-response plans and capability, give us a high level of confidence that material has not left the facility," Berger said.

In the memo, Winchell cited effective physical security at the lab as a mitigating factor in the management, inventory and accountability deficiencies, but said, "Otherwise, these identified weaknesses in the [nuclear material control and accountability] program would impact the ability of the facility to continue operations."

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