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Workers fired, disciplined after LANL shipment violation

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By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos National Laboratory has fired employees, and suspended and imposed “compensation consequences” for others after lab employees shipped nuclear material by air, against regulations.

“Our response to this incident is not business as usual,” said a lab spokesman. “Toward that end, all of those involved from the individual contributor level up the management chain have been held accountable through actions that include terminations, suspensions, and compensation consequences. Furthermore, we are transferring the responsibility for fissile nuclear material shipments to a different organization within the laboratory.”

The shipped material was either plutonium or uranium, according to the scientific classification of fissile nuclear material.
The disciplinary actions were carried out sometime last week, the spokesman said. The spokesman declined to give details and numbers about how many were fired, suspended and reprimanded.

“I cannot get into the details about personnel action. Personnel actions are an internal matter, the details of which we don’t share,” the spokesman said.

On June 23, National Nuclear Safety Administration officials announced that the laboratory failed to follow proper procedures when shipping “special nuclear material” to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina the week before.

The NNSA said the material was packaged specifically for ground transportation, not flight transportation.

“This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable,” NNSA Administrator Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, USAF (Ret.) said in a NNSA release about the incident. “I require the contractors who manage and operate our national laboratories and production plants to rigorously adhere to the highest safety and security standards in performing the vitally important work they do for our national security.”

The lab also called the incident “unacceptable.”

“Although these shipments arrived safely at their destinations and no one was hurt, this mistake, taken together with other mistakes in recent years, is unacceptable and is in the process of being addressed promptly and thoroughly,” the lab spokesman said. 

In this latest incident, LANL officials said they’ve already started to make changes to the division that was responsible for the shipping of radioactive material by plane.

The spokesman also said the laboratory will be reforming its policies and procedures.

“In the days and weeks ahead, we will be putting into place laboratory-wide measures to significantly reduce the likelihood of similar events occurring,” the spokesman said.

The materials were to be shipped by a commercial ground service but were shipped by commercial air instead, which is a violation of federal regulations, according to the NNSA. 

The NNSA oversees LANS, the public-private consortium that has been managing the laboratory since 2006.
NNSA did not have a part in the disciplinary actions, as LANS’ management and operations contract is designed to handle employee disciplinary procedures internally.

The most notable prior safety incident happened in February 2014, when waste containing radioactive waste exploded inside an underground storage facility at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

The incident shut down the facility for three years and costs millions of dollars to repair.

An investigation into the incident revealed the drum was shipped from LANL with the wrong type of kitty litter in it, which set of a chemical reaction that caused the drum to explode.

Other noted incidents include a small chemical fire that happened during a cleanup operation at the LANL’s plutonium pit-manufacturing facility in April.

After a series of violations that date back even before the 2014 incident, the federal government declined to extend LANS’ annual billion a year contract beyond 2018.

In June, the NNSA official announced its intention to start the bidding process this year.