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NNSA chief takes heat for Lab’s handling of beryllium disclosure

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By Carol A. Clark

County Councilor Robert Gibson didn’t mince words Tuesday in expressing displeasure in Los Alamos National Laboratory officials who failed to inform a large gathering of area leaders about the beryllium contamination last week.

Instead, officials let them all hear about it just a few hours later from the media.

DOE/NNSA Los Alamos Site Office Manager Donald Winchell Jr. attended Tuesday’s county council meeting in council chambers and Gibson spoke bluntly to him.

“Tuesday (Jan. 27) morning the Lab had 150 regional leaders in a room,” Gibson said. “The Laboratory didn’t cover that topic … that doesn’t do a whole lot for your credibility when you say things are going better ... then this bombshell hits the press later in the day.”

Winchell concurred saying the disclosure wasn’t handled well.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu was interested in the contamination issue, Winchell said, and was talking that same morning to the NNSA administrator.

Other officials were talking to each other, too, he said, and figuring out how best to handle the disclosure.

Winchell described the sequence of events surrounding the discovery of the contamination.

“We found the contamination in November,” he said, adding they didn’t go back into the closed up facility at TA-41 until recently.

The facility is basically a large storage vault with four smaller vaults inside, Winchell said, and the highest level of beryllium contamination was found on a shelf under one piece of equipment in one of the smaller vaults.

Beryllium affects a small portion of the population and is only dangerous when inhaled.

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle asked a number of beryllium based questions.

“Is there any evidence of the beryllium being released in the town,” he asked.

Winchell answered no and told him of the 2,000 people who have been notified of possible contamination – just four have had some type of allergic reaction to the exposure.

Winchell addressed the three Laboratory computers recently stolen from a Santa Fe home.

“We have between 30 and 40,000 computers at the laboratory … that’s a fair sized management problem … about 12,000 are laptops,” he said. “As you know, the Laboratory has been working hard on cyber security … I’m leaning hard to find a plan for the management of all these computers.”

Winchell spoke of the continuing resolution LANL is currently operating under until March 6. He added that he thinks the continuing resolution will likely remain in place through year’s end.

“That’s not all bad,” Winchell said. “The laboratory came into 2009 in pretty good shape and we don’t anticipate any cuts or layoffs.”

Winchell is encouraged by the $200 million-$300 million available in environmental funding.

“We may be facing some penalties in some of the consent order priorities because we started too late in the year to complete some of them,” he said.

Regarding the possibility of receiving some of the stimulus funding, Winchell told councilors the current budget should maintain operational needs and the environmental stimulus funding would target “shovel ready” activities intended to get things cleaned up.

On the nuclear side, he said there could be between zero and a billion dollars available.

Winchell spoke of finally signing a contract between LANL and the Los Alamos Fire Department.

“I think the fire department is working a little better,” he said. “But I’m still not satisfied with the training with regards to nuclear issues and I’m concerned the firefighters are more afraid of radiation than they need to be, I want to get them trained properly.”

Winchell also talked about the Jemez Bypass Road, which council tabled to a special March 2 meeting dedicated solely to that topic.

Resident Greg Kendall presented a petition with nearly 70 signatures requesting the entire project be tanked.

Council Vice Chair Mike Wismer asked if Winchell thought DOE would be receptive to conveying West Road to the county, which could alleviate the need for the bypass road. Winchell indicated it would be problematic to do that because of utilities and other infrastructure issues that would need to be addressed.

However, they would be willing to discuss it, he said. When pressed about events forcing the closure of surrounding roads, Winchell said there are no plans to expand LANL’s security perimeter.

The LASO office moved into a new building in July. Construction of the 25,000 square foot facility came in substantially below budget and ahead of schedule, he said.

LASO’s new building is just west of the Wellness Center parking lot in the lab’s main administrative area.

A steam plant adjacent to the old building has been remediated and removed, he said.

Once the main building is demolished, the property will be transferred to the county as part of the land transfer agreement between the county and DOE.

Following Winchell’s presentation, councilors discussed the purchase of a fountain sculpture to be placed by the skate park near the Mesa Public Library.

The motion to purchase passed. Councilor Chiravalle voted against the sculpture instead advocating for one that wouldn’t require the use of water.

Community Development Director Rick Bohn presented changes to the County’s sign code ordinance recommended by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Council directed Bohn and County Attorney Mary McInerny to rework the code ordinance recommendations and present them at a future meeting, requesting they don’t District what they can’t enforce.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Details of an update on the Diamond Drive project will be addressed in a story later this week.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com, 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.