U.S. Nuclear Lab Wraps Up Security Update ‘Under Budget,’ Despite Surprise Costs

A U.S. flag seen in 2000 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The National Nuclear Security Administration said a security upgrade at the site was completed under budget, despite millions of dollars in unplanned costs.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
April 4, 2014, 9:44 a.m.

Nuc­le­ar-arms of­fi­cials said a Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory se­cur­ity up­date was done un­der budget, des­pite mil­lions of dol­lars in un­planned costs.

The U.S. Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thursday said it spent $1 mil­lion less to im­prove pro­tec­tions at a sens­it­ive area of the New Mex­ico site than its “ori­gin­al budget” had al­loc­ated.

However, the pic­ture is a bit more com­plic­ated than that; pro­gram costs went down in April 2011, only to skyrock­et anew later on as se­cur­ity boosts were in­stalled at aging Los Alam­os lab fa­cil­it­ies that handle plutoni­um us­able in nuc­le­ar arms.

Fix­ing the is­sues ul­ti­mately re­quired tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in un­planned ex­penses and more than a year of ad­di­tion­al work, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted.

A nuc­le­ar agency of­fi­cial ac­know­ledged in a Thursday state­ment that the ef­fort to up­grade de­fenses at Tech­nic­al Area 55 — the coun­try’s sole site for man­u­fac­tur­ing plutoni­um nuc­le­ar-bomb trig­gers — was a “troubled pro­ject.”

The com­ment by NNSA As­so­ci­ate Ad­min­is­trat­or Bob Raines was an al­lu­sion to flaws dis­covered in the late stages of the new sys­tem’s de­liv­ery. His agency — a semi­autonom­ous branch of the En­ergy De­part­ment — re­vealed the prob­lems in late 2012, sev­er­al months be­fore the pro­ject was ori­gin­ally slated for com­ple­tion.

The nuc­le­ar agency could still say that the pro­ject wrapped up “un­der budget,” though, be­cause its earli­est cost es­tim­ate was far great­er than a pro­jec­tion it ad­op­ted later on.

“Due to fa­vor­able con­tract bids in April 2011, NNSA re­duced the es­tim­ated total pro­ject cost from $245 mil­lion to $213 mil­lion,” En­ergy De­part­ment In­spect­or Gen­er­al Gregory Fried­man said in a re­port earli­er this year.

The cost of fix­ing the sys­tem’s prob­lems ap­par­ently elim­in­ated most of the earli­er-an­ti­cip­ated sav­ings. Still, the pro­ject came in just short of the ini­tial $245 mil­lion es­tim­ate, ac­cord­ing to an NNSA news re­lease.

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