Management at LANL and Sandia: What Kind and What For?


An op-ed titled “DOE and micromanagement crippling LANL” appeared in the Sunday, March 1 Albuquerque Journal. It was written by three former employee-managers of Sandia National Laboratory during the 1980s and 90s.

The editorial cites a Department of Energy’s (DOE) report on Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 2014 that found “significant shortcomings that reflect unfavorably on laboratory management.” Their contention is that management in all the national laboratories has been suffering for years and that the culprit is the “government-owned company contracted operated (GOCO) model”—an acronym I’ve never seen before. They reference the Heritage Foundation findings that “these labs’ bureaucracies do not reflect the nimble characteristics of today’s innovation-driven economy. Inefficiencies, duplicative regulations and top-down micromanagement stifle innovation.” As we all know, the Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank that promotes free market neoliberalism and its verbiage “innovation-driven economy” is a euphemism for the private sector. But before I examine the underlying message of the editorial, let’s take a look at the editorial’s critical assessment of management at our national labs.

Charles McMillan, Director of LANL. Wikipedia photo
Charles McMillan, Director of LANL. Wikipedia photo

Specifically, the editorial lays out four deficiencies it sees in current management. First, there is a conflict of interest when compensation of lab directors and executives is paid with contract management funds rather than government funds. Charles McMillan, current LANL director, is paid $1.5 million annually. He is also president of Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), whose two main partners are the University of California (UC) and Bechtel Corporation. A significant portion of McMillan’s salary is paid by LANS. UC ran the Lab as a nonprofit until June 2006 and received approximately $8 million in annual compensation. The for-profit LANS was awarded $51.9 million in fiscal year 2013, or more than six times the old nonprofit fee, for no apparent improvement in contract management.

Second, the technology developed at the labs flows more freely to the contractor than to the contractor’s competitors and provides a taxpayer paid advantage. The infamous Bechtel Corporation, whose profile I examined at length in a 2006 La Jicarita News article, is the primary beneficiary of this largesse. What an excellent recipient for taxpayer advantage: as Steve Bechtel Sr., son of Bechtel founder Warren Bechtel and father of current CEO Steve Bechtel Jr., put it, “We are not in the construction and engineering business. We are in the business of making money.” And they’ve made billions in the construction industry, railroads, mining, real estate development, oil pipelines, and finally, nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

LANL map118Third, the DOE creates the “world’s largest work-free safe zone” by requiring excessive emphasis on pervasive inspections for safety and compliance: “this creates an evaluation system largely based on who caters to DOE the most.” Of course, as numerous whistleblowers have revealed, these so-called “save zones” are anything but. In the mid-1990s Quality Assurance officer and whistleblower Joe Gutierrez revealed that LANL was violating the Clean Air Act with radionuclide emissions. Bob Gilkeson, who in 2007 received the annual “Whistleblower Award” from the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Washington, DC , revealed that LANL’s groundwater monitoring model is unreliable. He has also charged that LANL’s seismic hazard analysis reports are of poor quality. Damon Hill and Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group also questioned these “safe zones” in a 2006 article, “Competition — or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Some Questions from New Mexico, May 30, 2006”: “Collectively these changes [new LANS management] all point to a new ethic in which contract extension and corporate profit could potentially override any and all other considerations. The new LANS/LANL contract awards contractor fees based on performance. When these fees are deadline-driven, as is now the case in plutonium bomb core (‘pit’) production, nuclear contractors may cut corners, as they have so often in the past, to meet the deadline and make the profit or fee.”

Aerial view of the mixed waste landfill at Sandia National Laboratory
Aerial view of the mixed waste landfill at Sandia National Laboratory

And finally, the contractor companies via political action committees can influence their respective congressional delegation and tempt the labs to lobby on behalf of their contractor team. For many years New Mexico Pete Domenici made sure that government funds flowed freely into LANL and Sandia coffers despite all the safety violations, mismanagement revelations, and environmental contamination. During his tenure on the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee he made funding for the two labs and the nuclear industry in general the centerpiece of his career. The current delegation—Tom Udall, Martin Heinrich, and Ben Ray Lujan—continue in the same vein, citing the same worn out rationalization that the labs are New Mexico’s economic engine despite the state’s last place finish in so many areas of critical community well-being: household income, education, children’s health, etc.

What is not quite clear in the editorial, however, is just what kind of management these former Sandia managers have in mind. They reference that from 1949 to 1993 Sandia was managed on a no-profit, no-loss “exceptional service in the national interest” basis by AT&T, whose senior executives were assigned to Sandia on leaves of absence and whose retirement pensions were paid by AT&T. One of the editorial writers was one of those AT&T executives. As I mentioned previously, the not so subtle message seems to be that private businesses, unfettered by government bureaucracy, would be the best lab managers. Would they then have Bechtel, the private contractor cut loose from its non-profit UC partner and from DOE oversight? The editorial writers harken back to the term that management ensures the labs provide “exceptional service in the national interest.” What corporate entity in the 21st century is going to provide that “exceptional service?”

Neither does the editorial ever question what the “national interest” may be. The mission of the labs, of course, is nuclear weapons development. Is the continuation of the Cold War the national interest? I’m guessing their reference to “innovative work” probably includes other kinds of scientific research in which they (or the rest of us) would like see the labs engaging: renewable energy, cleanup technologies, climate change, forest and watershed restoration, biomedical, etc. Maybe finding a better management model would be a step in the right direction, but until the military industrial complex’s loosens its hold on public policy, the nuclear mission doesn’t leave much room for innovation.

“Nuclear laboratories are no longer to be intellectual institutions devoted to science but part of a corporate-business model where research, design, and ultimately the weapons themselves will become products to be marketed. The new dress code will be suits and ties, not lab coats and safety glasses.” — Frida Berrigan


  1. Some of us don’t do weapons work. I’d just like you to know that I’ve worked in international safeguards for over a decade at LANL. It is rewarding work and I spent 5 years in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency to share my expertise. I have been disenchanted with the new management scheme so far, but please know that there is so much more than weapons research going on at our weapons labs.

    • Thanks for commenting, Heather. And yes, I know there is “much more than weapons research going on.” That’s what many of us wish to see to see expanded to ultimately replace the weapons work. And thanks for your support of La Jicarita.


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