NM nuclear watchdog: A fox in national lab henhouse?

Paul Hommert is both director of Sandia National Laboratories and president of the executive board of Sandia Corporation, a for-profit LLC that runs the lab. Courtesy: National Nuclear Security Administration. (Photo courtesy of Public News Service)

Paul Hommert is both director of Sandia National Laboratories and president of the executive board of Sandia Corporation, a for-profit LLC that runs the lab. Courtesy: National Nuclear Security Administration. (Photo courtesy of Public News Service)

Renee Blake

Public News Service

ALBUQUERQUE — The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has assessed a $6 million penalty against Sandia National Laboratories for Sandia’s handling of an incident in Alaska in which two lab employees were seriously injured. However, that is not the only concern for Jay Coghlan, director, Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He noted serious conflicts of interest for top executives at Sandia and other nuclear laboratories.

For instance, Coghlan said, Sandia’s director, Paul Hommert, also chairs the executive board of Sandia Corporation, the for-profit company that runs the lab.

“Is it appropriate to have the lab directors overseeing the nuclear weapons programs also be presidents of the for-profit corporations running these nuclear weapons laboratories?” Coghlan asked. “I have to question whether they are always going to 100-percent represent the interests of the nation.”

Sandia Corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of defense contractor Lockheed-Martin. Coghlan said a firewall is necessary between the lab director and the laboratory corporation. He warned that the current arrangement could mean a perpetual cycle of costly life-extension programs for nuclear weapons – or changes to weapons that are already reliable – without sufficient new testing being done. (The term “life extension program (LEP)” means repairing and replacing components of nuclear weapons.)

In addition to the director’s multiple roles, Coghlan brought up issues with a letter that Hommert wrote to the NNSA, objecting to the penalty for the incident in Alaska.

“With his concluding paragraph, he talks about, if you don’t give us the money, you’re going to, ‘send us a message that our broader national security work is not supported by the NNSA. Such a message will impact our ability to support the nation’s national security challenges,'” Coghlan said.

Those words are threatening, Coghlan said, adding that national security spending has increased above Cold War averages and that Sandia’s nuclear weapons programs are bigger than those of Los Alamos and Livermore Labs in California. Even so, he said, the days of federal blank checks for national laboratories are over.

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