Nuclear weapons contractor to pay millions for misuse of federal funds

A private corporation that operates a U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory agreed on Aug. 21 to pay the federal government $4.79 million to settle Justice Department allegations that it illegally used taxpayer money to lobby for an extension of its management contract. The payment by the Sandia Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin that operates Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, resolved claims that the corporation violated two laws that bar such a use of federal funds. It followed by nine months a restricted-access report by the Energy Department’s inspector general that accused Sandia of improperly trying to win a new contract without competition by lobbying senior Obama administration officials and key lawmakers with funds taken from its existing federal contract. In his report, Inspector General Gregory Friedman described the company’s tactics as “highly problematic,” “inexplicable and unjustified,” and recommended that the Energy Department pursue reimbursement of the funds.

Bury excess plutonium, don’t turn it into fuel, study says

A team of experts has confirmed what the Energy Department has been saying for two years — that burying 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium would be far cheaper and more practical than completing a multibillion-dollar plant that would turn the radioactive material into commercial reactor fuel. The report raises pressure on Congress to walk away from a costly project that has been plagued by rapidly escalating costs and an absence of any customers for the fuel it is supposed to produce. The Department of Energy tried to kill the project in 2013, but Congress has kept it on budgetary life support, with the strong support of South Carolina’s congressional delegation. The study says essentially that sooner or later the Energy Department will be forced to abandon the fuel plant, and the sooner it does so the better. “The downward performance spiral [expected for the plant] is accompanied by an upward cost escalation spiral that would eventually make DOE’s path-forward decision for them,” the report concluded, “but only after a great deal of money has been wasted.”

The report was delivered to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week by an Energy Department “Red Team” led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason.

Thirteen years and counting: anatomy of an EPA civil rights investigation

SANTA FE—On June 26, 2014, Deborah Reade got a certified letter from the Environmental Protection Agency that was nearly a decade in the making. “During the course of the EPA’s investigation,” the letter read, “it was determined that additional information is needed to clarify this allegation.”

Reade was incredulous. Her original complaint to the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, in 2002, seemed like a lifetime ago. Back then, she was research director for a group called Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping. She’d alerted the agency to a potential pattern of discrimination against Spanish-speaking residents by the New Mexico Environment Department.

Audit: Nuclear lab lets safety gaps languish for years

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.

Audit: Lovelace Health Plan overbilled Medicare Advantage

An audit that included a healthcare plan in New Mexico found overbilling of a Medicare program. The healthcare plan in question is from Lovelace Health Plan. The audit showed that the overbilling occurred through Medicare Advantage Plans, which use a risk score to determine how much to bill. The Center for Public Integrity originally requested the audit findings under the Freedom of Information Act, but didn’t receive anything until the organization filed a lawsuit to see the records. Fred Schulte, the reporter who has been at the forefront of the battle to obtain the records, spoke with New Mexico Political Report over the phone about the audit and what he finally received.