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:
- In 2012, Los Alamos sent unlabeled plutonium to a laboratory at the University of New Mexico where graduate students sometimes work, requiring the lab’s decontamination.
- In 2014, Los Alamos workers mispacked drums of radioactive nuclear waste, one of which then burst inside the nation’s only underground waste storage facility and rendered that storage site inoperable for years – costing the government more than a billion dollars.
- A few months later in 2014, a specialized machine in Nevada operated principally by Los Alamos scientists spewed radioactive uranium particles that were then inhaled by 31 technicians and scientists without their immediate knowledge.
- In 2015 a powerful electrical arc-flash blew an electrician out of the cubicle at Los Alamos where he was working and burned him over 30 percent of his body.
- And just this June, as the Center began publishing its series on safety problems at Los Alamos and other nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos mistakenly sent three containers of radioactive plutonium to two other labs by air, instead of using ground transportation, as federal rules require.