DOE Inspector General Questions Reliability of Los Alamos Neutron Science Center

* The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Energy (DOE) released a report recently questioning the reliability and future viability of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, which has been considered the flagship of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) complex.

The center was constructed in 1972 to support defense and civilian operations with neutron scattering capabilities. The center houses a high-power proton linear accelerator. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, provides the majority of the funding for the center and is responsible for its oversight.

In 2001, NNSA convened an executive council to analyze the center following a $138 million request from LANL for its upgrades. However, while this funding would address refurbishments to the center, it would not extend its operations beyond the next ten years.

In its report, the Inspector General found that, "The ability of [the center] to provide needed research capabilities in the future is uncertain. Increasing reliability problems, coupled with the lack of a long-term plan detailing funding and mission priorities, increased the risk that [the center] may not be capable of operating effectively in the future."

The report indicates that the center's annual reliability has decreased to 77 percent, falling as low as 44 percent in 2003. The Inspector General also found that many of the components necessary for the center to function are obsolete and would take years to replace.

Pete Nanos, LANL's director, argues that the center is important to the nuclear weapons program and LANL's scientific enterprise.

The report recommends that NNSA and the council investigate the feasibility of the center. The report states, "Without such study and a mission need determination, it is likely that [the center...] will continue to deteriorate and the facility may suffer extended outages. In addition, [DOE] will continue to expend about $90 million annually to operate a facility that may not satisfy long-term mission needs."

If the investigation finds that the center is unnecessary or not viable to support future operations, the report advocates closing the center and moving tasks to other facilities. The Inspector General has recommended that NNSA and the committee investigate similar facilities at other DOE sites that can replace the center. There are similar facilities in Europe, at the Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Activists have long believed that the center should be closed. They point out that the center is responsible for 90% of the radioactive air emissions that migrate off of the LANL site when it is operating. Furthermore, the center is responsible for a large portion of the energy usage at LANL.

Sheri Kotowski, of the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, which represents communities located downwind of LANL, said, "As a representative of downwind communities, which are ultimately the most effected by emissions from this facility, we fully support its closure for the protection of our health and safety."

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