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GAO finds hazards in nuclear weapons work

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By The Staff

A report on worker safety commissioned by the two senior Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee called for stronger management and oversight of the three nuclear weapons laboratories by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.The report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office replayed a litany of safety problems at nuclear weapons laboratories that have been the subject of numerous Congressional investigations, audits and other reports since 2000.The report responded to a request by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who led numerous investigations into safety and security problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory while Republicans were in the majority. The focus of the report was clearly on Los Alamos but was extended to include Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories as well.The report noted, “Since 2000, nearly 60 serious accidents or near misses have occurred at the laboratories, including worker exposure to radiation, inhalation of toxic vapors and electrical shocks.” LANL was shut down for several months in 2004; LLNL was temporarily closed in 2005 – “costing taxpayers hundred of millions of dollars in lost productivity,” the report recalled. “Nevertheless, safety problems persist.”The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) began holding a series of eight public hearings that started in 2002 to address DOE and NNSA’s safety issues and issued a series of recommendations for bolstering federal oversight.DNFSB returns to Los Alamos for a public hearing on some of the same, continuing issues on Dec. 5.The GAO report blamed a lax attitude toward safety procedures, weaknesses in identifying safety problems and then correcting them. Frequently in the past, when an incident or series of incidents occur or complaints are addressed, corrective proecedures are announced by the affected laboratories or their federal supervisors.The GAO recommended the NNSA retain independent federal oversight and ensure that efforts to improve safety be measured by the outcome, rather than the process. It also recommended annual progress reports to Congress.John Broehm, an NNSA spokesman in Washington, D.C., said agency officials generally agreed with the recommendations, but felt the report “was a little misleading” in its implication that the labs have major problems.“We take nuclear safety and worker safety very seriously,” Broehm said. “But when you look at the size and scope of what we do, we feel the numbers are pretty good.”A spokesman for LANL, Kevin Roark, said the lab showed significant safety and security improvements in fiscal 2007, reducing the number of incidents and injuries by 30 percent.“We feel that we've come a long way toward changing the safety culture at the lab, but we realize there's always room for improvement,” he said.The GAO said it found little indication that the NNSA or contractors that manage the labs had followed a 2003 directive calling for a disciplined approach toward improvements. The report also criticized the NNSA’s heavy reliance on contractors’ own safety management controls for oversight, the “contractor assurance program.” Critics have complained the program turns workers’ safety over to the managers, who may encounter conflicting budget and scheduling priorities.GAO recognized the some positive steps by NNSA, but said those efforts were still under way and it was too early to see what effect they might have.Accidents at the labs included workers being exposed to radiation, inhaling toxic vapors and being shocked. The GAO said no one was killed but that some workers were seriously injured and lab facilities were damaged. The Associated Press contributed to this story.