Nuclear Negligence

Published — September 6, 2017 Updated — September 8, 2017 at 10:42 am ET

Los Alamos laboratory director announces he will step down

Charles McMillan (left) testifies before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, May 7, 2013. Wikimedia/Los Alamos National Lab

Charles McMillan, who presided over controversial missteps and higher budgets, says he will retire at year’s end


September 6, 2017: This story has been corrected.

The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory has told employees there that he will retire at the end of 2017, eight months before the private contractor he leads is scheduled to be displaced as the laboratory’s manager.

The announcement on Tuesday follows years of costly turmoil at the nuclear weapons facility and comes on the heels of the Center for Public Integrity’s disclosure in June and August of harrowing safety incidents and other snafus there during McMillan’s tenure.

A laboratory press release about McMillan’s announcement did not say why he was resigning after 6 years as director, ahead of next year’s unusual handover of the lab by his consortium to another group of private companies, still not yet chosen by the Department of Energy. A spokesman for the laboratory, Kevin Roark, declined to elaborate.

But the Center’s articles about the laboratory’s troubles had attracted the concern of Washington lawmakers and the mishaps at the lab had angered senior officials at the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a unit of the department that directly oversees the lab’s work.

The Center’s stories disclosed, for example, how a 2011 incident involving the careless positioning by two lab workers of unstable plutonium rods nearly provoked a runaway nuclear chain reaction that could have killed those nearby. The episode helped cause many nuclear safety engineers at the laboratory to leave their positions, convinced that their warnings about dangerous practices were being ignored by contract managers.

The managers were motivated mostly by profit-seeking, some of the engineers said, partly because they received so-called “performance bonuses” not given to lower-tiered workers.

“The structure of the contract and performance-based incentives contributed to a perception among some personnel that production – not safety – was the most important measure of success” at Los Alamos, a previously-undisclosed internal NNSA review of the episode concluded in 2014. The lab also was not penalized for its repeated shortcomings, such as “inattention,” according to the review – instead it “continued to receive its fee even after significant safety events.”

When the number of safety personnel dropped precipitously in 2013, the NNSA’s acting director in Washington talked McMillan – a nuclear physicist whose government-funded compensation exceeded a million dollars a year — into taking an extraordinary step while new safety experts were recruited and trained: He shuttered the nation’s only facility for fabricating new plutonium cores for nuclear weapons and aggressively examining how well or poorly existing cores were aging.

The shutdown was meant to be short-term, but it mostly persisted through late 2016, and the laboratory is still struggling to restart the remaining portions. The NNSA has said that as a result of all the lab’s difficulties, it is studying whether to hand off key weapons-related plutonium work to another lab.

The Center’s stories detailed other problems at Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and until now a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal:

The shipping incident resulted in an unusual public reprimand of the lab by Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the head of the NNSA, which overseas nuclear weapons work. “This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable,” he said in a press release. The Department of Energy ordered a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos.

A subsequent CPI investigation found Los Alamos to be a repeat offender in mislabeling shipments of hazardous materials, including plutonium, and also revealed that the lab incorrectly claimed in its initial report to the government that the shipment had to go by air because it was urgently needed by its recipient, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. A Livermore spokesperson told CPI however that there actually was “no urgency” at all in its request.

Even before the incident, the fate of the company McMillan led, Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS) – composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, BWXT Government Group, and AECOM – had already been sealed. The NNSA decided in 2015 not to extend the consortium’s contract, under which it had earned up to $76 million in annual profits, and the contract was put out to bid in June of this year. Officials say they expect the winning bidder to take over the lab in September, 2018.

Norm Pattiz, the chairman of LANS , said in Los Alamos’ press release that McMillan had planned to retire earlier but was persuaded by the board to stay through the end of the year. He provided no details. “We appreciate Charlie’s commitment and believe he has put this iconic institution in a strong position to continue serving the country for many years to come,” Pattiz said.

McMillan told his staff, in announcing his retirement, that the lab was healthy. It hired 1,000 employees in the previous fiscal year and its annual budget had grown approximately $400 million from FY 2013 to $2.5 billion in 2017, he said.

Referring to a major effort initiated by the Obama administration that President Trump wants to enhance with an extra billion dollars in funding, McMillan added, “the long overdue modernization of the nuclear weapons complex and its infrastructure, including facilities at our Laboratory, now appears to be firmly underway.”

Correction, 5:15 p.m., September 6, 2017: This article has been updated to correct McMillan’s term of directorship. McMillan served as director since 2011. Previous to that he was principal associate director at Los Alamos.

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