When news broke out a few months ago that an 80-year-old nun and two retiree peace activist had defeated our nation's highest level security systems at the Y-12 site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and had spent a leisurely evening throwing blood on the walls of a building that houses nuclear weapon components, I was glad that it had not happened here in Los Alamos.
Los Alamos security had to be better – much better than the apparent joke that is security at Y-12, I thought to myself. I have now had to re-evaluate that thought.
Would an octogenarian nun and two guys eligible for senior discounts at Denny's be able to defeat the high level security of Los Alamos National Laboratory? What about trained terrorists? Recent news reports about problems with a new security system at TA-55 make you go hmmmmm; could similar issues exist here?
John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal reported a couple of weeks ago on major problems with a $214 million project to improve security at TA-55, which is a high security lab area were dangerous nuclear components are handled for weapons and research work. It was discovered that the "duct work" that routed fiber optic cables for new security sensors and camera data had been installed improperly.
The amazing thing is that the problems were not discovered until the final testing of the new security system was underway. Did no one bother to check the routing of the fiber optics before it was actually time to turn the system on? Seriously, how could this possibly be the case?
One person I talked with who is familiar with the project told me that the cost of the project was low-balled from the beginning and that this led to many of the problems we are seeing today. This person told me that 'they had this much work to do,' spreading arms wide open, 'and this much money to do it with,' hands only a few inches apart.
I've heard that contractors on the project were warning the lab/NNSA many months ago that there were serious problems with the project. The internal memo from the NNSA that Fleck received from a confidential source indicates NNSA was aware of problems with the project going back as far as May 2010 and even warned lab managers that there would be consequences for being over-budget and being late with the security project, a prospect the NNSA clearly seems to have anticipated.
Two weeks ago when the internal NNSA memo surfaced and exposed the security system mess to the public, what did the NNSA propose to get things under control? The memo indicated that a small army of forensic auditors would be immediately dispatched to Los Alamos in order to hold the lab "accountable for poor project management." That should really help fix the problem – right?
So while NNSA and LANL fight over who will pay for the budget overruns, the project itself has been completely suspended and project contractors have been sent packing. Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), the private company formed by The University of California, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Company and URS Corporation that manages the lab now faces the prospect that its $76 million management fee could be cut in order to help make up for the increased costs. Additional security personnel will need to be paid in order to make up for the missing security that the new system would have provided, had it gone into operation on time.
Two weeks ago in the internal NNSA memo obtained by the Journal, Lab officials estimated the cost of fixing the problems would be $12 million to $25 million. Folks in the know who I talked with felt this was a seriously low-balled number. It sure was. This morning Fleck reports there is a new estimate to fix the broken TA-55 security system. The latest estimate has nearly doubled to $41 million, according to a memo directed to Los Alamos staff released Wednesday from LANL Director Charles McMillan. McMillan notes in the memo that the security project issues have "damaged the laboratory's credibility."
McMillan's memo to staff indicates that the additional work to fix the security system problems could take six months and work isn't likely to get underway until March.
Now $41 million is a minor rounding error for a $2 billion plus lab budget, but it's not strictly an issue of money. This major security project screw up – coming on the heels of Y-12's nun-gate, other well reported facility planning foul ups and vast project cost overruns – raises major questions as to what is really going on between NNSA and the labs/facilities that it manages.
Are fee cuts and finger pointing really the best way to solve these problems?
The other question that comes to my mind: Is congress going to turn a blind eye to the obvious problems that seem to be plaguing the nuclear weapons complex or, now that the election is over, will congressmen and women start doing their jobs?