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Lab worker released after accident

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By Tris DeRoma

The power briefly went out in Tech Area 35 Thursday when an electrical worker working on installing a fire alarm in one of the area’s buildings cut into a conduit inside one of the buildings. No one was injured, but the worker was sent to an area hospital for evaluation.

Questions about the incident sent to the National Nuclear Security Administration were referred back to the management at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“No electric shock. No injury. As a precaution only, one subcontractor employee was taken to LAMC and evaluated with no medical attention needed,” LANL Spokesman Kevin Roark said.

“The worker was not hurt or shocked”, said George Isaacs, the president of Pueblo Electric, the company that employed the subcontractor. As of Tuesday, the worker was not yet approved to return to work.

According to Isaacs, the worker cut into a three quarter inch, 20 amp circuit.

“It was the same size circuit you’d plug in your hair dryer or vacuum to at home,” Isaacs said.
The accident tripped the circuit breaker, which cut the power to the building. Isaacs said all safety procedures were otherwise followed.

“He was wearing all of his personal protective equipment, we were following all procedures, we stopped work, sent him to the hospital even though he was OK. They wanted to know that he wasn’t shocked,” Isaacs said.

The worker was released from the hospital “immediately,” according to Isaacs.

Earlier news reports published in a newspaper in Santa Fe said that a main circuit was cut, but he said that was not accurate, Isaacs said.

“It wasn’t the main circuit to the building that got cut, he wasn’t electrocuted,” Isaacs said. Isaacs described the circuit as small, and powered by 24 volts.

“The reality is that there’s more shorts that happen up here when a homeowner is working on something in their home than has probably happened in two years at LANL,” Isaacs said. “But when something happens up here, everything gets sensationalized, and LANL takes it very seriously too. Down in the real world, you trip a circuit, you turn it back on and everyone goes back to business. At LANL, they evaluate policies, procedures, training. It’s probably the safest place you could work.”  

In recent years, LANL has suffered numerous safety setbacks, mostly in areas where the transport of nuclear materials were involved.

The most spectacular violation occurred in February 2014 when a barrel of transuranic radioactive waste burst while being stored in an underground storage facility at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. The explosion contaminated the facility with radioactivity from the waste, triggering a massive, multi-million dollar cleanup and a three-year shutdown of the plant. A Department of Energy investigation later revealed the explosion was caused by the wrong type of kitty litter being packed into the barrel. The litter was supposed to be clay, the litter used was plant-based, which caused a thermochemical reaction which ignited the waste inside the barrel.

The violation caused the DOE to end Los Alamos National Security’s $2 billion management and operations contract. A new request for proposals for the new contract was announced by the NNSA in July.

In May, a worker was fired by LANL for approving a shipment of radioactive material to be sent by air courier, instead shipping it by ground courier. The move was a direct violation of federal safety criteria governing the transport of radioactive material.

In July, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recorded another safety incident where a worker accidentally crossed into a 50-foot exclusion area around a group of tritium waste containers at Area G. The 50-foot distance barrier is meant to keep workers from getting hurt should one of the containers explode.

“During a fact-finding of the event, the worker with access to Area G who was acting as the escort admitted to mistakenly crossing the boundary, not recognizing it as an exclusion area. Management identified the escorting worker had not been trained on and had not read the standing order,” the DNFSB’s weekly safety report said.

The report also listed outdated paperwork and operations personnel  not being updated on the current maintenance plan at Area G as factors also. The report also faulted the lab’s badge system.

“The badge reading system at Area G is not capable of tracking the training requirements necessary for access,” the DNFSB report said.