Lab flirts with another closure

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Statement acknowledges increase in safety issues

By Roger Snodgrass

A recent rash of safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory reminded federal officials of events leading up to the laboratory shutdown in 2004. Their concerns were expressed in another stern memo to Los Alamos National Laboratory managers that came to light Thursday.

“The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is concerned about recent safety incidents…” the Jan. 20 memorandum begins, noting that “the events are similar to each other and to prior events, indicating that prior corrective actions have not been fully effective or degraded with time.”

The memorandum raises an old question, going back more than

10 years, about whether there has been sufficient focus and follow-through to prevent even worse consequences, “up to and including serious injuries or fatalities.”

A prepared statement from the laboratory acknowledged the authenticity of the memorandum.

“The memo from the NNSA Los Alamos Site Office raised some concerns and requested a plan of action from the lab,” according to the laboratory statement Thursday.  “The lab has responded and outlined the improvements it has made and intends to make.  We are working together to ensure lab operations are as safe as they can be.”

The memo signed by site office Manager Don Winchell and Contracting Officer Representative Joseph Vozelle compared a series of accidents going back to March 20, 2009, with another group of accidents leading up to a severe eye injury that occurred July 14, 2004, and led former LANL director Pete Nanos to close the laboratory. The closure , which ran for as long as six months of some parts of the lab cost $357 million, according to former NNSA administrator Linton Brooks testimony to Congress afterward, and also contributed to the decision to open the national weapons labs’ contracts to competition two years later.

The most recent safety incident cited at the laboratory was an experiment conducted by a postdoctoral assistant that resulted in an oven explosion and was later criticized for sloppy preparations, along with lax supervision and safety formality.

A few weeks earlier, an unanticipated explosive test blew the doors off a containment building. The initial investigation into the causes appears to have been inadequate, and the resulting damage may have been purposely downplayed in order to avoid a higher-level investigation, according to criticism at the time.

Also over the last year, there were other exposures and accidents that caused evacuations of several facilities and a massive electrical shock to an employee.

The memorandum was leaked by the Project on Government Oversight, which has a long history of revealing critical information about the national weapons laboratories that is otherwise routinely kept from public view.

Peter Stockton, principal investigator for POGO, said Thursday that the memo confirmed information the organization released previously about systemic safety problems at Los Alamos.

“These accidents closely resemble a number of other incidents at Los Alamos over the last eight years,” states a POGO press release, “including at least two other accidental explosions, a severe eye injury caused by a laser that lead to a six month shutdown of the lab, and an incident in which a researcher accidentally sprayed acid into other researchers’ eyes.”

The release included a copy of the memorandum and two recent letters to President Obama.

POGO called for an immediate inspection of Los Alamos National Laboratory and asked for White House-level staff to make sure the pattern of problems is stopped.

In a telephone call Thursday, Stockton said, POGO has been contacted by the Office of Management and Budget to arrange a meeting, as a result of the letter.

“Both Los Alamos National Laboratory and NNSA take safety very seriously, and we are working together to ensure that proper safety procedures are in place,” LANL’s prepared statement stated. “The safety record at Los Alamos was very good for the first 3 years under the current contract, but we have seen an increase in safety issues recently, and we are working hard to understand and resolve these issues.  We are very concerned about hazard identification across the board.  We are working the issues daily and have made positive changes to the way we plan and execute hazardous work activities, including increased management involvement in planning and new worker training programs.”

Earlier this month, a letter from Energy Secretary Chu, responded to a critical set of recommendations from the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board about an outstanding safety issue related to a catastrophic earthquake hazard at the lab’s plutonium facility.