Triad National Security has made the Los Alamos National Laboratory a little safer since taking over as the prime contractor in 2018, but the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) believes there is more work to do, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Since taking the reins from Los Alamos National Security — removed eight years before the final award period on its contract after serious safety lapses that shuttered the lab’s PF-4 Plutonium Facility and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., for years — Triad has joined high-level Department of Energy and NNSA groups focused on safety, worked to align the contractor’s safety objectives with DoE’s and allowed external consultants to scrutinize the prime’s operational practices.

But “NNSA officials nonetheless stated that safety culture at LANL still needs improvement,” according to

the Government Accountability Office’s report, “Contractor Improving in Safety and Other Areas but Still Faces Challenges.”

Congress ordered the Government Accountability Office to conduct its investigation of the safety culture at Los Alamos in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, signed into law not long after the nonprofit team of Battelle, the University of California and Texas A&M University took over management of the lab from the Bechtel National-led Los Alamos National Security. 

Reforming the lab’s culture was a central part of the more than year-long competition to replace Los Alamos National Security. In its request for proposals for a new lab management and operations contractor, NNSA included a paragraph dedicated to “organizational culture change,” stipulating that Los Alamos National Security’s successor must “improve the [lab’s] organizational culture by proactively balancing the conduct of operations in every aspect.”

Triad, according to the latest GAO report on the lab, has made some progress, including by providing rewards to “leaders and staff who achieve significant performance goals and exhibit desired behaviors” and creating “worker-led environment, safety, and security teams for each of the laboratory’s directorates,” GAO reported.

At the same time, there have been a few serious safety lapses at Triad during the first three years of the team’s potentially 10-year contract.

These include multiple radiation releases at the PF-4 Plutonium Facility, which is being upgraded to handle production of 30 war-usable plutonium pits annually by 2026. The most recent release disclosed by the lab happened in January. There were a pair of others, each involving glovebox breaches, in 2020: one in June and another in September of that year.

In August of 2020, there was a flood in PF-4, caused when an inexperienced worker operated a wet vacuum he was not trained to use. The incident set back work on the lab’s critical plutonium pit program by three weeks.

More recently, the DoE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments dinged Los Alamos for a close call at the lab’s firing range, where subcontractor CenterraLos Alamos discharged live ammunition while someone was standing downrange.