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DOE faults NNSA field office for lab’s safety issues

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By Tris DeRoma

A May report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Enterprise Assessments gave the Los Alamos National Laboratory high marks for increasing its safety staffing and implementing “adequate” safety training, qualifications and procedures. 

However, the same report also noted that the National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Field Office personnel and LANL officials aren’t consistently seeing eye to eye on the interpretation of safety requirements, even after LANL and the NNSA made moves to better communicate following some well-publicized safety breaches. 

“Overall, although LANS has implemented many elements of its improvement plan, the persistent differences between LANS and NA-LA on their understanding of safety basis requirements continues to delay safety basis document development and maintenance,” a statement in the report said. 

The office of Enterprise Assessments identified the source of the delays coming from the NNSA-Los Alamos Field Office.

“…EA identified that NA-LA (NNSA-Los Alamos Field Office) has not appropriately communicated to LANS (Los Alamos National Security, LANL’s current management and operations contractor) in a timely manner its concerns with evaluations of the situation (ESSs) for emergent situations existing in high hazard nuclear facilities,” a statement in the report said. “In several cases, NA-LA communicated significant concerns with LANS’s ESSs (evaluations of the situation) 6-12 months after receipt, significantly delaying NA-LA formal verification that LANS established safe and stable conditions for emergent situations.”

While the Office of Enterprise Assessments also concluded that NNSA’s findings in a recent biennial review of the NNSA’s field office may have contributed to the (one of the concerns cited in the biennial review was inefficient staffing at the NNSA’s Los Alamos field office) NNSA’s delayed responses to LANL’s evaluations of its safety problems, the Office of Enterprise Assessments also said the NNSA Los Alamos field office could have more quickly verified what LANL did right or wrong after safety breaches and other concerns.

“Additional NA-LA actions is warranted to ensure timely, formal verification of safe and stable conditions for emergent situations in existing high-hazard nuclear facilities,” the Office of Enterprise Assessments report said. 

In regards to the overall plan, the Office of Enterprise Assessments noted with approval that LANS increased its staff of 22 safety analysts to 39 in 2017. 

The Office of Enterprise Assessments was also assured that LANS also has a process in place that will ensure changes to safety basis documents LANS makes will be submitted to the Department of Energy when required.

The purpose of the Office of Enterprise Assessments report, which started with a review of LANL’s safety procedures in 2017, was to make sure LANL’s safety processes were in line with DOE standards. 

The report was done at the request of the NNSA Los Alamos field office. The office wanted an independent review of its nuclear safety processes after an NNSA report came out in April 2017 said that the NA-LA “is effectively implementing several of its nuclear safety responsibilities, but is not meeting expectations for its safety basis responsibilities and has oversight deficiencies common across multiple functional areas.” 

The DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments is an independent federal agency that assesses independently whether operations performed by government agencies are safe for the agency employees and the public.  

The Office of Enterprise Assessments reports directly to the Secretary of Energy.