LANL and fire chief confident despite report

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By Carol A. Clark

Inspector General Gregory Friedman states in a memorandum to Energy Secretary Steven Chu that fire protection at Los Alamos National Laboratory is perennially inadequate.

Friedman explains in his Sept. 11 memo that problems have festered during more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a fire protection contract between the DOE, the National Nuclear Safety Association, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos County.

“We did not find evidence that anyone actively managed the fire suppression services contract for a number of years,” he said in a detailed report that accompanied his correspondence. 

On Sept. 30, 2008, NNSA finally entered into a cooperative fire suppression services agreement with Los Alamos County.

DOE officials have testified that it was safety issues that kept LANL shut down for months beginning in July 2004. Also, past objective reviews of LANL’s operations typically concluded that it did not take its safety functions at its nuclear facilities seriously enough. 

Now that LANL is the nation’s undisputed home of plutonium research and manufacturing, the situation had to improve.

Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker described the report as more of a historical document, which he said does not currently reflect the accomplishments between the lab and county during the last 11 years.

Tucker credits LANL’s new management company, Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), with ramping up laboratory safety by implementing measurable safety processes.

“In the spring of 2008, LANS created a dedicated instructor force comprised of subject matter experts,” Tucker said. “This is a financial commitment on their part that doesn’t come easy, especially in these hard economic times. This demonstrates LANS’ commitment to safety. There’s also been a focused drive through LANS to better document our training. Through the formation of a three-party partnership with LANS, Los Alamos County and NNSA, we know that no one is walking away from their obligations and that we are providing the Laboratory and the community with a highly competent and capable fire protection response.”

The Laboratory recognizes that fire protection issues did not receive the attention they should have in the past.

Officials have been working hard, LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said this morning, to resolve any issues that have arisen and will continue to work hard to assure that the Laboratory is well protected from hazards associated with fire protection.

“We are now and have been very confident in the abilities and response of the LAFD and have been working with them more recently to upgrade tactics and training,” Roark said. “We believe that in a serious fire, the risk to the public and to Lab employees would be kept as low as possible. We have every confidence that the county firefighters have the required information and access authorities to deal with a fire situation at any of our radiological facilities.”  

Roark added that the Laboratory now has the right focus, a new organization in place and a path forward that better assures effective fire protection into the future.

LAFD firefighters and officials dedicate Fridays to LANL tours and “boots on the ground” meetings with subject matter instructors.

“We work with the experts in various fields who are using the materials and doing the processes to better understand how things work to enhance our responses,” Tucker said. 

Most but not all national laboratories maintain in-house fire departments. On Oct. 3, 2007, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory contracted with the Alameda County Fire Department to handle its fire suppression needs.

“Also, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is looking at hiring the Oak Ridge Fire Department,” Tucker said. “We are a nuclear-grade fire department fully capable of providing fire protection to meet both the laboratory’s need as well as the community’s needs.”

LAFD is an ISO Class 1 rated fire department. It’s the only fire department in the nation twice accredited and is currently in the process of receiving an unprecedented third accreditation.

“I would stack us up against anybody, anywhere,” Tucker said. “Our personnel are the best, most qualified firefighters you could ever want and yet we continue to train and make improvements wherever necessary.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4186 ext. 25. Read her newsblog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.