Safety First

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By Katy Korkos

Continuing safety problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), including a recent pause in waste shipments, have brought increased scrutiny to laboratory safety procedures. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) came to town Wednesday for its second on-site meeting in as many years, with a hearing at Duane Smith Auditorium. The event included presentations by several watchdog groups, but the bulk was taken up with reports from the board’s technical staff, from the DOE/NNSA both nationally and from the local site office, and from Michael Anastasio, director of LANL and president of Los Alamos National Security LLC, the consortium that runs the lab.Wednesday’s meeting was the follow-up to an official letter sent by the board to the NNSA on Feb. 1, which detailed suggestions to improve safety at LANL.The letter lists five paths to improve safety: • strengthen federal safety oversight;• improve safety bases and ensure the efficacy of safety systems;• develop effective institutional safety programs;• eliminate known hazards; and • increase federal management of new projects. A.J. Eggenberger, who chairs the five-member committee, told the assembled public and officials that the board spent all day on Tuesday as well as Wednesday morning touring the lab and had also received information from the DOE/NNSA site office regarding actions already taken.Charles Keilers, resident site representative for the board, led off the official presentations. “LANL is probably the most diverse site in the complex,” Keilers said. He described the difficulty of improving safety at the laboratory as due to aging facilities, and a lack of staffing. “Additional oversight is needed,” Keilers said.Don Winchell and William Ostendorff represented the NNSA at Wednesday’s meeting, Winchell from the local site office and Ostendorff from Washington, D.C.“We consider our national labs as true national security labs, not just weapons labs,” Ostendorff said. Ostendorff was closely questioned by the board as to how systems were improved at the laboratory, and cited several improvements.“I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re satisfied with our performance, but we’re striving to improve. We’ve invested $4 million in upgrades,” Ostendorff said.Winchell followed Ostendorff. “I’m pleased to report that we have taken proactive steps to address each of the areas (in the Feb. 1 letter),” Winchell said. Referring to the board’s direction to improve safety systems, Winchell said that it was a challenge. “My expectation is that the laboratory will implement new safety basis controls in a timely and rigorous manner,” he said.Anastasio was the next witness called by the board, and spoke of significant progress in safety at the lab in 2007.“I’m not satisfied with the pace of the progress,” Anastasio said. “We expected the issues, but are surprised by the extent of problems.” He said that the lab had seen a 31-percent improvement in its conduct of operations performance index, a 27-percent decrease in total recordable cases, and a 31-percent decrease in “days away/restricted time” cases in 2007.A focus on integrated safety management is the centerpiece of LANS safety approach, Anastasio said.Board member Peter Winokur asked Anastasio “What do you think is the biggest gap in the safety culture here?”“There was a lot of autonomy in different parts of the lab,” Anastasio said. “At the worker level, the lab was not clear about expectations, and the policies and procedures were not clear.” He said that the safety culture is improving as workers take personal responsibility for safe operations.

Public comment

Local resident Jerome Beery spoke about safety at the lab, citing his long experience working with nuclear materials. “I came to Los Alamos in 1959, and I have never seen anyone injured,” Beery said. “I have never seen the morale so poor as I do right now. It has to do with layer-upon-layer of bureaucratic things. You have to turn the researchers loose.”Watchdog groups represented included Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), Nuclear Watch New Mexico (NWNM), the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group (EVEMG), Citizen Action New Mexico and the Los Alamos Study Group.Scott Kovac and Jay Coghlan of NWNM asked at what point the board would recommend that activity at the lab be “paused.”“The issues are possibly a lot worse than the public would know,” Kovac said. “The public doesn’t have a say on what risk it accepts from Los Alamos.”“I’ve been watch-dogging Los Alamos for 25 years,” Coghlan said. “It’s a disgrace that the safety basis has not been fixed.” Coghlan added the key issue for him is plutonium pit production at the laboratory. “I’m here to urge the board to lean hard on the lab,” he said.Joni Arends of CCNS primarily asked the board to look into what is seen by CCNS as “bad data” in the Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS). Arends said that CCNS has challenged both groundwater data and geological data in the SWEIS document.“High hopes are frequently dashed on the hard rocks of Los Alamos,” Greg Mello said. “Please don’t be optimistic, be realistic. Do less, slow down, look and listen. The pace of the operations is a potent cause of the problems.”Embudo resident Sheri Kotowski, a member of the EVEMG, said she would like to see the board have some enforcement capabilities. She also brought up contaminants from controlled burns on lab property. She said she was shocked the lab had still not signed an agreement with county firefighters.The meeting was video recorded and there will be a link to the video on the website www.dnfsb.gov.