UC System Permitted to Operate Lab

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The UC system is fit to operate Los Alamos National Laboratory for at least the next two years, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday.

Citing improvements in key areas, energy officials said a series of safety problems and a lagging clean-up effort were two factors under consideration when the special provisions clauses were written into the Los Alamos contract.

When the two parties entered into the five-year contract in 1997, both agreed to several provisions, including increasing community involvement in the laboratories, cleaning up waste that accumulated during the Manhattan Project and increasing laboratory safety.

"There were three areas that the department wanted to make progress in," said Lisa Culter, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy. "The parties decided that the department would be in its right to begin an early exit if these improvements were not made."

In addition, officials said that the laboratories were in need of new programs designed to combat safety and clean-up problems.

"The department also wanted the lab to put in place an integrated safety management program, which is a top-to-bottom standardization of safety procedures across the complex," Culter said. "There had been safety problems and a feeling that environmental clean-up was not moving forward, as well as a concern that the laboratory help the overall community."

One Los Alamos spokesperson said the laboratory complex has become safer and cleaner since the energy department added the special provisions clauses.

"Our integrated safety management program has made significant strides in making the lab a safer place for employees," stated Los Alamos Spokesperson John Browne. "Substantial progress has been made in the environmental restoration and waste management area and we are on track for additional improvements. Our many lab initiatives to strengthen regional community relations will continue to grow."

The parties agreed to evaluate improvement in these areas two years into the contract. At that time, the U.S. Department of Energy had the perogative to either continue or terminate the agreement.

At the end of 1999, the Department of Energy evaluated laboratory progress in the three areas and determined that significant strides had been made by UC management.

"I am pleased that improvements by UC and Los Alamos management have been made so that the off-ramp provision of the contract did not have to be exercised," stated Bill Richardson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. "We hope UC and Los Alamos continue this trend and their performance continues to improve."

A slew of safety problems, including the death of one security officer, prompted a clause in the laboratory contract requiring that UC management revamp its safety policies.

During the mid-1990s, a security guard from a contract company was killed during a routine security drill. The security officers were practicing with weapons that were supposed to contain blanks. Instead, one of the guns contained real bullets. The officer was shot and killed by another participant in the exercise, said UC laboratory spokesperson Rick Malaspina.

In two unrelated events, a machine overturned onto someone and a worker hit an electrical line with a jack hammer and was electrocuted. Although these two accidents did not result in death, both were serious.

"There needed to be more enforcement and a real campaign from the bottom up to combat these safety problems," Malaspina said.

The contract requires that the UC system engage in community outreach to improve the local economy of Los Alamos, which has been accused of being isolated from the community.

"The Parties recognize that the Laboratory has a major impact on the northern New Mexico regional economy as the principal employer, a major purchaser of goods and services and an institution with technical capabilities that may serve as the basis for the development and/or expansion of private employment within the region," the Los Alamos contract states. "The Parties have entered into a series of agreements intended to permit the Contractor to play a role along with regional communities and governmental authorities in generating and strengthening regional business enterprises, stimulating greater regional employment and infrastructure and lessening regional dependence on federal expenditures."

The Los Alamos contract had special provisions because of circumstances unique to the facility. Unlike Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos comprises a large portion of the local economy.

"Unlike the California labs, the laboratory and UC is the largest and most important employer in Northern New Mexico, Malaspina said. "It is a much different area and a much different state."

Los Alamos makes up 40 percent of the local economy in Northern New Mexico and is one of the largest employers in the state of New Mexico, he said. In addition, the state has traditionally relied on federal funding, which has been reduced in recent years.

"New Mexico has a weak economy that has been depending on federal spending, but that has been changing," Malaspina said. "The laboratory and DOE wanted to do a better job of helping the economy grow. That means hiring more people from the area and using contracts and vendors from the area."

During the Manhattan Project, nuclear waste was not handled carefully, Malaspina said. Because of little information about the dangers of nuclear waste, chemicals were not cleaned up properly and required attention.

Because the UC system was able to make significant progress in these arenas, the Department of Energy decided to continue the contract through 2002.

"We thought the performance was good, especially in the area of community improvement," Malaspina said. "The Department of Energy agreed, and on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson decided not to end the contract, but to continue it until 2002."

The decision to complete the current contract does not guarantee the agreement will be renewed in 2002. The energy department is likely to announce plans to pursue future contracts with the UC system later this year.


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