For a third year, Battelle Energy Alliance received a high A grade on its performance evaluation from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Idaho National Laboratory contractor — in its first year under Director Mark Peters — earned 97 percent of its total available DOE performance fee for fiscal year 2016, totaling about $15.5 million.
The annual performance-based payment comes in addition to cost reimbursements for work conducted by the lab last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Battelle has managed the lab since 2005.
In a letter delivered last week, DOE-Idaho Manager Richard Provencher told Peters that the lab had “exceeded almost all of the significant award fee goals and objectives and met overall cost, schedule and technical performance requirements of the contract.”
In a Friday note to employees, Peters called the evaluation “exceptional,” and said it was “gratifying to see our hard work recognized.”
The first decade under Battelle was “a lot about rebuilding the lab,” Deputy Director Juan Alvarez said in a Friday interview. It meant building new facilities, making key hires and raising the INL’s profile, he said.
“What you’re starting to see in 2015 and 2016 is we’re starting to produce a lot more impactful research outcomes,” he said.
Provencher cited notable research accomplishments in nuclear fuels and materials, control systems cybersecurity and nuclear nonproliferation, among other areas. He also praised the INL’s “leadership role” in the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, or GAIN program, meant to spur nuclear power innovation by private companies by offering lab research and experts.
He said the Advanced Test Reactor continues to support a “wide range of customers,” but noted the decades-old reactor has “operational challenges,” related to aging equipment, which employees have frequently had to recover from.
Provencher wrote that Peters and the rest of the leadership team provided “very effective leadership and worked to refine and enhance the laboratory mission, vision and strategic planning.” Out of 17 national laboratories, INL was among two labs that had the most comprehensive strategic planning processes, he said, which marked a “major improvement” in the lab’s strategic planning from previous years.
In a score card, the lowest grades were a B-plus, for the worker health and safety program, and the environmental management system.
“The lab is finally getting its personality,” Alvarez said. “It’s becoming relevant and impactful.”
Battelle also picked up 97 percent of its available fee in 2015. In 2014, DOE withheld $350,000 to provide incentive for the lab to improve operations standards in several areas, including radiological safety, and INL ultimately earned the money, making its score a 97, Alvarez said.
In 2011, 16 employees at the Materials and Fuels Complex were exposed to plutonium. That event contributed to back-to-back low grades and payments from DOE in 2012 and 2013 — including the lowest, 87 percent, the lab had seen since taking over the contract.
“I think we’re past that, the systemic issues have been addressed,” Alvarez said. The “levels of vigilance” have remained high in dangerous radiological areas and around nuclear reactors, he added.
Alvarez said the lab now turns to planning for next year — including uncertainty of what’s to come under a Donald Trump administration. A strategy meeting is scheduled for Monday, he said.
The cybersecurity and nuclear missions are likely to stay robust under Trump, current and former INL officials say. The clean energy research side might require the “greatest amount of adaptation” under a Trump presidency, Alvarez said. The lab will be ready to “pivot, if needed,” if major policy changes occur, he said.
“Change is difficult, especially when so much is uncertain, but we are working diligently to prepare for the coming administration transition,” Peters wrote in the employee note.
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth