ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Los Alamos National Laboratory says firing workers and putting stricter controls in place are only the first steps it’s taking to protect the public as it prepares to accelerate production of a key plutonium component for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The Los Alamos lab has been under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Energy for repeated violations of safety protocols, including mishandling of plutonium and nuclear waste. Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said this week’s announcement of some firings and new rules shows accountability, but more internal reform is needed. “No, we won’t be satisfied, because the underlying structural problems that lead to so many management mistakes are not even close to being fixed,” Mello said. The Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration have already started a bidding process for new management to oversee the Los Alamos facility, but they insist the repeated violations have nothing to do with seeking the new contract.
On Monday, climate change protesters in downtown Albuquerque spoke out against four of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks. Rallying outside the offices of Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, protesters called on the two lawmakers to oppose the confirmations of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, former Governor of Texas Rick Perry as head of the Department of Energy and Montana congressman Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Organized by 350.org, a nonprofit organization focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change, the rally in Albuquerque was related to national protests organized across the United States. Udall’s State Director Greg Bloom delivered a message to the crowd from the senator.
An obscure facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory for nine years provided vital scientific data about a critical gas used in America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, until it was shuttered four years ago due to a raft of safety problems that have stubbornly persisted. The Energy Department, which oversees and finances the lab’s work, has poured tens of millions of dollars into fixing the problems, but so far, the expenditures haven’t borne much fruit. The facility – known as the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility – is “vital” to the lab’s national security mission, but it remains closed, the department’s inspector general said in a report released July 20. In fact, Los Alamos managers have been unable – after seven years of effort – even to prepare a sound analysis of the site’s safety hazards and the steps being taken to ensure that the radioactive gas at issue does not leak or explode and harm either workers or those living nearby, according to the DOE report. DOE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman said in the report that poor hazard analysis has been a recurrent problem at the lab, and said weaknesses in other projects have remained unfixed from one annual evaluation to the next.