Safety board sounds fire protection alarm

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By Roger Snodgrass

A federal oversight agency has rebuked the National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory for failing to resolve a number of issues related to fire protection.


A report based on a three-day visit to the laboratory in July, called for fulfilling longstanding recommendations for a 60 percent increase in minimum staffing – from 28 to 45 per shift and a “hot patient” protocol for dealing with contaminated victims, among other emergency preparations.


In a letter dated Dec. 8, 2008, the chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board requested that NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino account for the situation within 180 days.


DNFSB Chairman A.J. Eggenberger’s letter acknowledged a completed long-term cooperative agreement between NNSA and Los Alamos County last fall, but said there were old issues yet to be addressed and recent evidence of continuing weaknesses identified by LANL managers.


“This situation is a direct result of the failure to implement long-standing recommendations made in the 1995 and 2004 Baseline Needs Assessments, and is further evidenced by observations made and issues identified by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, during recent emergency exercises,” Eggenberger wrote.


A new Baseline Needs Assessment, laying out a comprehensive plan with recommendations on closing the gap between the regulatory requirements and existing emergency capabilities at the laboratory was expected to be completed in December.


The current evaluation has yet to be finished and a spokesman for the NNSA local office, Don Ami was unable to discuss the agency’s response at present.


“We have the matter under advisement and are developing a plan of approach with regard to how to respond to the letter,” he said Wednesday. “We have been advised by our subject matter experts not to say nothing public because we’re not sure which of the areas we will be addressing in any detail. We probably won’t have anything to share until close to the time it’s due.”


The cooperative agreement between NNSA and Los Alamos County took 11 years to negotiate. At a meeting on Sept. 23, 2008, the county council approved an authorization to finalize an agreement with the federal agency to begin with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.


Under the agreement, the county agreed to provide fire department services for LANL and pay a share of the expenses, not to exceed $17.8 million over the five-year term of the agreement.


According to the staff report prepared at the time, NNSA’s financial assistance under the agreement was expected to range from $77.9 million to $84 million over the same period, plus use of federally owned equipment and fire stations.


NNSA was to have substantial involvement in the make-up and preparation of the force.


The DNFSB report said minimal progress has been demonstrated on 17 recommendations that were made for the last Baseline Needs Assessment in 2004, which in turn date back to similar recommendations that were made in 1995.


At a May 20, 2008 exercise, the report noted continuing inadequacies. County fire personnel were said to be unprepared to respond into a tritium release area at the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility.


The problem was compounded in the exercise by the lack of an ambulance crew, which was not available because of staffing shortages in the fire department.


Los Alamos Fire Chief Douglas MacDonald was also constrained in commenting on the report Wednesday, but said it was welcome.


“These types of audits are absolutely of value,” he said. “Whenever the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, the Inspector General and similar entities look at different systems and what they find – real or perceived – good will come out of it without question. Policies will be improved by these audits and the bottom line is we all want to be better.”




Monitor Managing Editor Carol A. Clark and County Reporter Jennifer Garcia contributed to this story.