Lab addresses fire protection criticism

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By Roger Snodgrass

A new report by a federal auditor revisits old vulnerabilities in the area of fire protection at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

At the same time, the report gives laboratory managers credit for taking substantial actions based on the audit.

The report found past failures to correct fire safety issues “that increased the risks of injury or loss of life had a fire occurred at Los Alamos,” along with the risk that hazardous or radiological material could have been released, operations disrupted and buildings and components lost.

Recommendations included structuring the contract incentives to reflect clear expectations on the fire safety questions.

A response by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is ultimately responsible for fire protection at the nuclear weapons laboratory, agreed with the report’s recommendations but not with its conclusions.

In a background memorandum the Department of Energy Inspector General summarizes the findings of an audit that has been going on for about 16 months and is one of at least four conducted since 2005 on the subject of fire safety with another one already underway.

Before Los Alamos National Security, LLC, became managing and operating contractor for the laboratory in 2006, they conducted formal inspections related to potential liabilities and losses. At the time, they identified 812 pre-existing fire protection deficiencies, which the new audit says were not all resolved.

“Of 296 pre-existing deficiencies we selected for audit, 174 (59 percent) have not been corrected,” Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote, adding that 32 of the deficiencies categorized as “significant,” had been closed by the previous contractor (the University of California), even though the deficiencies had not been corrected.

Jim Streit, Fire Protection Division leader administratively oversees the lab’s fire protection group, consisting of engineers, technicians and inspectors and organizationally oversees the Los Alamos Fire Department under an independent agreement with Los Alamos County.

“We’ve acknowledged that we could have done a better job,” he said. He added, “The report acknowledged that we have taken steps recently.”

Among them, he said, the laboratory changed his role to focus more attention on the fire protection deficiencies.

“In February, the lab made this change to try to get attention on this,” he said. “I’ve been given the role to champion that, to drive those improvements, help find money and drive the priorities to fix those things.”

Among problems noted by the report were missed tests for a kitchen hood fire suppression system at Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, failure to provide a secondary fire exit on the second floor of a primary office building, and not replacing an antiquated fire alarm panel in the Plutonium Facility.

“There is a big list of issues,” said Streit. “Is someone running this to ground and managing this to closure? That’s my role and we’ve focused on the top issues and got them resolved.”

As for the panel, he said. “Our position is that the panel is there for folks’ safety. My contention is that the system is operable and functional. We know we need to replace it.”

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board wrote to the NNSA administrator in December 2008, expressing concerns about inadequate staffing and slow progress in correcting fire protection shortcomings.

LANL and its federal managers recently filed tort claims against the county for damages to a laboratory parking structure during training exercises by the LA Fire Department.

The IG report mentions another current inspection “to determine whether fire suppression and related services (for LANL) are assured through agreements with Los Alamos County.

Among other IG reports on fire protection at the lab, a March 2007 document found that wildland fire mitigations activities had either not been performed or were not completely effective. “Further, Federal officials had not always actively monitored contractor wildland fire protection programs, coordinated protective efforts or validated the effectiveness of contractor fire mitigation activities,” a summary states.