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Los Alamos management of waste facility faulted

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A project to replace an aging and degrading radioactive waste treatment facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory is 11 years behind schedule and its price tag has nearly tripled because of ineffective management, according to a government audit released Wednesday.

The report from the Department of Energy’s inspector general says the National Nuclear Security Administration and Los Alamos have spent $56 million since 2004 on plans to replace its 50-year-old and sometimes failing Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility. But design work is still not complete and the project’s two phases now won’t be finished until 2017 and 2020 at the earliest.

According to the audit, the facility that treats and disposes of low-level and transuranic waste has degraded and sometimes fails, leaving the lab with no way to process radioactive liquid waste while repairs are being made.

The audit is the latest in a series of government reports to detail cost overruns and delays by projects overseen by the NNSA, prompting Congress to appoint a task force that is studying a potential overhaul of the DOE-run agency.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office reported NNSA has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule. Other projects have been canceled or suspended, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

The newest audit blames ineffective management by NNSA and Los Alamos National Security, the private contractor that runs the lab, for the delays and cost overruns on the treatment plant. In a span of seven years, the audit says, three separate designs have been developed and changes were still being made in August.

“The planning and design reversals, confusion, and incompetence documented in this report boggle the mind and exceed what seems possible,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. “It’s like a Laurel and Hardy movie, starring Bechtel-led (Los Alamos National Security) and NNSA. It happens again and again, on almost all projects.”

Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said the lab agrees there were past project management difficulties, and said design changes and “a changing set of safety, capacity, and waste disposition requirements have resulted in several project delays since 2005.

“The Laboratory and NNSA have been working closely to improve project management on RLTWF and other projects,” he said, noting construction is expected to begin in 2014.

Mello, however, called for resignations and steep fines, noting the same contractors are to blame for problems and overruns on other key projects at Los Alamos, including the security system at its most sensitive area.

Officials late last year announced that a new security system meant to protect the only place in the country where nuclear weapon triggers are made didn’t work, and they would need $41 million and six more months to fix it. Lab officials said the system is now nearing completion.

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