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.
Last week, a United Nations group signed a draft treaty to prohibit the development, manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons. When President Donald Trump pulled the United States back from global climate change action earlier this year, that move was met with outrage from many, including elected leaders, across the country. The international action banning nuclear weapons has received far less attention, including here in New Mexico where many communities have been wedded to nuclear weapons research, production and waste since World War II. Today, the U.S. and Russia together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Eight countries have tested nuclear weapons, and currently, the United States remains the only one to have deployed nuclear weapons outside of tests.
The plan on a hot summer day was to liquefy highly flammable lithium at a temperature of more than 750 degrees and then pump it into a special chamber for cooling, as part of a research project at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. But what happened instead in August 2011 was a near-catastrophe that could easily have killed two workers. The experiment was designed to help learn more about lithium’s potential use in an advanced nuclear reactor. But it went awry when someone turned the wrong valve and the heater holding the lithium cracked, causing the molten liquid to leak and spray abruptly onto a pipe holding the coolant. The result was a steam explosion, a hydrogen explosion — or likely both — in the lab’s Plasma Materials Test Facility.
In mid-2013, four federal nuclear safety experts brought an alarming message to the top official in charge of America’s warhead production: Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s sole site for making and testing a key nuclear bomb part, wasn’t taking needed safety precautions. The lab, they said, was ill-prepared to prevent an accident that could kill lab workers, and potentially others nearby. Some safety infractions had already occurred at the lab that year. But Neile Miller, who was then the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, says those experts specifically told her that Los Alamos didn’t have enough personnel who knew how to handle plutonium so it didn’t accidentally go “critical” and start an uncontrolled chain reaction. Such chain reactions generate intense bursts of deadly radiation, and over the last half-century have claimed nearly two dozen lives.
National policies always affect New Mexico’s lands and natural resources, especially during times of uncertainty. In the 1940s, for example, military and nuclear interests honed in on the state’s lands and natural resources. The U.S. government established what became Los Alamos National Laboratory on Pajarito Plateau in 1943, and detonated the first atomic bomb two years later near Alamogordo. White Sands Missile Range, which encompasses 3,200 square miles, was created in the 1940s, as were the military bases in Albuquerque and Clovis, now called Kirtland and Cannon. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news right now.
Today, the New Mexico Office of the State Auditor released information about unspent funds in various state accounts. A quick read of the report shows that New Mexico isn’t spending all it has available on environment and water projects. According to the report, New Mexico has $512 million in unspent water-related infrastructure funding. The office points out that despite increasing needs around the state, “water-related infrastructure funds continue to accumulate faster than they can get out the door.”
The state also has $43 million in “stagnant funds” that haven’t been used the last two years according to the State Auditor. Among the largest of those 39 funds?
A federal inspector contacted the Energy Department fraud hotline a few years back to flag irregularities in contracts that several nuclear weapons laboratories had signed with a former New Mexico Congresswoman whom President Trump has designated to become the new Air Force Secretary. A far-reaching probe ensued in Washington after the hotline contact, which ended in a demand that the weapons labs give back nearly a half-million dollars to the government. The former Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, has said she did not do anything wrong in trading on her Washington experience to become a “strategic adviser” to the labs. But internal Energy Department documents newly obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make clear that some of the contracting irregularities stemmed from demands specifically made by Wilson in her negotiations with the labs. Wilson’s nomination now represents the last chance for President Trump to get one of his first choices for service secretary installed.
When New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson left Congress in 2009, she went to work the same month as a paid consultant for a subsidiary of weapons-contracting giant Lockheed Martin. That company then capitalized on Wilson’s extraordinary familiarity with Washington to craft a lobbying strategy meant to avoid having to compete for the renewal of a government contract that brought in huge profits. The strategy relied on discrete meetings between Lockheed officials and powerful members of the fledgling Obama Administration, key members of Congress, and influential Washingtonians who had also passed through the revolving door between government and private industry. Wilson, a Republican who had spent four years on the House Armed Services Committee and six years on the Intelligence Committee, spent five months drawing up a roadmap for Lockheed to achieve its key objective: Renewing its existing contract to manage Sandia National Laboratories, a wholly-owned subsidiary that helps make nuclear weapons and has an annual budget of more than $2 billion, without having to compete with any other firm — unlike most federal contractors. Fulfilling the classic role of a “nonlobbyist” strategic adviser, trading on information she gained while serving in public office, she told the firm exactly who they should approach for help.
New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators took aim at the latest cabinet level nominee announced by President-elect Donald Trump Tuesday. Sen. Martin Heinrich called former Texas Governor Rick Perry “utterly unqualified” to lead the Department of Energy, while Sen. Tom Udall said he was “disappointed” by the selection. Heinrich noted that those who work at the national labs in New Mexico are affected by the Department of Energy, and called the department “New Mexico’s economic lifeblood.”
Udall also mentioned that most of the DOE budget is earmarked for “its solemn and critical responsibilities regarding our nation’s nuclear security.”
Udall brought up Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Labs as the “crown jewels of our nuclear security complex,” as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico. “New Mexico is also home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only deep geologic facility that disposes of weapons-related nuclear waste, which is closed due to a radiological accident and still faces a difficult road to recovery,” Udall said. “To win the confidence of the American people and the Senate, Gov. Perry will need to demonstrate a strong understanding of these complex challenges and lay out a management vision to execute the difficult tasks before the department.”
Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines. Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal Department of Energy misses one of these deadlines, it can then be sanctioned and penalized by the state. “The Department of Energy hates penalties,” Scott Kovac, a research and operations director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in an interview. “A deadline might shake out some funding from its budget.”
For 11 years, a previous consent agreement between DOE and the state Environment Department set strict deadlines like these in New Mexico.