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Report calls safety at LANL into question

Chris Ramirez
June 21, 2017 07:27 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Major concerns have arisen about safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The concern isn't just for the employees, but for everyone living near the lab.

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A watchdog group uncovered dozens of government reports that reveal Washington is concerned about reckless actions at the lab that have nearly triggered bursts of radiation and dangerous reactions. The Center for Public Integrity found that LANL is losing money, behind on work, and losing its key safety inspectors who have quit their jobs in frustration.

Patrick Malone is an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. His year-long investigation into LANL's safety record now has political leaders worried.

"We've talked to more than three dozen people -- some of the current workers, some from the past," Malone said. "They helped us understand these issues and we reviewed hundreds upon hundreds of documents totaling tens of thousands of pages."

Click here for the full CPI report.

The findings mention a time in 2011 when lab employees could have been killed.

"A couple of workers wanted to take pictures of plutonium rods they had just cast," Malone said. "They ignored all of the warnings, crammed these things very closely together and nearly set off a chain reaction.  It would have been lethal for them and anyone else in the room."

"Plutonium rods are a key part of nuclear weapons. If the rods are too close together, neutrons could collide with other atoms, causing them to fission enough to provoke atom splitting. That's essentially a small nuclear reaction."

Documents reveal a horrendous safety record for lab employees.

"They fall off ladders, inhale uranium and plutonium -- things that could affect their health over the long term and they get shocked and burned," Malone said.

These safety issues, CPI reports, are causing qualified safety engineers to quit. The lab needs 27 safety engineers specialized in keeping plutonium from fissioning out of control.  The CPI reports there are only 10.

"As a result of these safety experts who were upset about mismanagement leaving, the lab was quietly shut down in 2013," said Jeff Smith, CPI managing editor. "It's been mostly shut down since then and that meant they couldn't make or test key parts of nuclear weapons."

A 2013 Los Alamos report suggests the lab is losing $1.36 million every day that it's shut down. 

"In an internal memo, intended to set the record straight, staff was assured that safety is the laboratory's highest priority and since 2013 PF-4 programmatic operations and safety management programs have successfully completed seventeen independent external assessments and that the facility is now 96 percent operational," a LANL spokesperson said in a statement.

The National Nuclear Safety Administration sent a lengthy statement accusing the CPI of not offering all the facts or the full context. Here is a full statement from National Nuclear Security Administrator Frank Klotz:

Safety is paramount at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). We have uncompromising standards for our plants and laboratories to perform work in a safe and secure manner that protects our employees, our facilities, and the public. An article published Sunday by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), the first in a planned series on safety at NNSA sites, attacks the safety culture at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) without offering all of the facts and the full context. 

In 2013, LANL, in consultation with NNSA, paused operations at the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility (PF-4) due to concerns with the criticality safety program.  The decision to pause operations in an important national security facility was made to remedy issues associated with staffing, operational discipline, and safety documentation. 

NNSA held LANL accountable for these issues. From 2013 through 2016, NNSA withheld over $82 million in fee payments as a result of a range of safety and operational issues at Los Alamos.

Since 2013, however, LANL, with close and detailed oversight by NNSA, has made progress in improving the safety of plutonium facility operations. LANL has increased criticality safety staffing and demonstrated improvements in its performance of operational tasks. 

LANL has also worked closely with NNSA to minimize the impact on the critical national security missions at the laboratory. Throughout the pause in operations, LANL maintained its ability to certify the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile.  By late 2016, the plutonium facility had resumed all operations that had been paused in 2013.  The plutonium facility is now producing developmental pits and is on track to fabricate war reserve plutonium pits that will be used in future life extension programs beginning in the mid-2020’s.  

There has not been a nuclear criticality accident at a Department of Energy nuclear facility in nearly 40 years. When safety concerns are identified, our focus is to determine the causes, identify corrective actions, and minimize recurrence. This focus on continuous improvement is apparent in our safety statistics over the past decade.  Our safety record – while working with complex, high-hazard nuclear materials in aging infrastructure – is the result of a professional workforce that puts safety above all else.

Credits

Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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