Oct 24, 2007

Board finds lab safety deficient

By Wendy Brown | The New Mexican

Some systems intended to keep Los Alamos National Laboratory safer are deficient, according to a government report that provides few specific findings because of security concerns.

A.J. Eggenberger, chairman of the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which reviews safety at the country's nuclear weapons facilities, wrote about the problems in an Oct. 16 letter to Thomas D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, which maintains the safety of the country's nuclear weapons stockpile.

"While it is arguable whether any of the individual system deficiencies identified by the staff constitute an immediate safety concern, their collective importance and widespread nature warrant immediate attention," Eggenberger wrote.

The exact nature of the problems can't be described for security reasons, said Don Ami, a spokesman for the administration in Los Alamos, but they are important. Kevin Roark, a lab spokesman, directed The New Mexican to Ami for comment.

The lab has a plan to address the problems and is in the process of hiring more people to put the plan in action, said Donald L. Winchell, the administration's revitalization manager at the Los Alamos Site Office.

"We will continue to work with the laboratory to ensure speedy action on these important safety initiatives," Winchell said.

Although the safety board would like the administration to take faster action, the board's letter noted that none of their concerns are an immediate safety concern when taken individually, Winchell said.

The board raised many of the concerns at a public meeting in March 2006, Eggenberger's letter says, and the board reiterated them in a February letter to NNSA.

Board staff members wrote a report about the problems after inspecting safety systems in July at the lab's plutonium facility, weapons engineering tritium facility, and the chemistry and metallurgy research facility, the letter says.

The report noted two safety system deficiencies in the plutonium facility, one concerning an air system and another a water bath. The weapons engineering tritium facility had safety system deficiencies with a tritium gas handling system and an inert and oxygen monitoring system, the report said.

And the chemistry and metallurgy research facility had safety system deficiencies with a particular type of seal and a door interlock system, according to the report.

The administration must provide the board with a report and briefing about the actions the administration has taken to fix the problems in 60 days, the letter says.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based watchdog group, said the board's safety concerns shouldn't cause hysteria, but they also shouldn't be downplayed.

"The board shouldn't have to keep going over the same serious safety problems over and over again," said Mello. "And these are serious safety problems."

Contact Wendy Brown at 986-3072 or wbrown@sfnewmexican.com.


The federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says the deficiencies in some of Los Alamos National Laboratory's safety systems include:
  • Incomplete or inadequate descriptions of safety functions
  • Weak or missing design information
  • Failure to verify safety functions through surveillance and testing
  • Failure to provide enough maintenance for the systems
  • Lack of adequate normal and abnormal operating procedures
  • Lack of formal calculations for important operating parameters
  • Outdated, and in some cases, inadequate safety bases


Greg said...

Some may be interested in NNSA Principal Deputy Jerry Paul's testimony of May 5, 2005 before the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, available at www.nti.org/e_research/official_docs/doe/doe050505.pdf,

which includes the following passage. The second paragraph is germane to the DNFSB's concerns:

Even before the stand down, the NNSA had held discussions with the laboratory director and his deputy about our concerns about safety practices at the laboratory. The NNSA was consulted prior to Director Nanos’ decision to stand down activities. Throughout the entire period, the NNSA was actively involved in all aspects of the resumption. Initially, the NNSA enlisted additional resources from throughout the Department of Energy, notably the Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also increased its presence, sending selected experts to assist their site representatives. In addition, the full DNFSB Board visited Los Alamos during the resumption to assess progress. The Los Alamos NNSA site office manager met regularly with the DNFSB site representatives to review their concerns. At one point, the NNSA Administrator, Linton Brooks, authorized the site office to bring in more than 40 additional staff to oversee and assist the resumption process. Federal employees were directly involved in self-assessments, readiness assessments, training, finding reviews, and decisions regarding resuming activities. This was very much a joint activity in which the NNSA site office was making decisions and concurring in all safety and security steps along the way. Resumption of activities for medium risk and high-risk activities required my concurrence. For activities designated as essential, either safety or program-based, the federal staff participated as a veto member of teams performing these activities. Consequently, site office staff were readily available to make real time decisions regarding security and safety while in the field. Site office staff helped create the resumption plan, assisted in developing procedures, participated in training, and lent their operational and security expertise to the effort. The NNSA Administrator went to Los Alamos on July 19, shortly after the stand down was announced, to meet with senior managers at the site office and the laboratory and made subsequent visits to monitor progress. During the first few weeks after the stand down the Deputy Secretary of Energy and Administrator Brooks conducted daily conference calls with senior DOE officials and the site office manager to examine issues associated with resumption activities.
While much of the public attention to events leading to the laboratory stand down focused on the supposedly missing classified media, we in NNSA felt that inattention to safety procedures at the laboratory presented a greater problem. Together they led us to believe that a culture of non-compliance existed within the laboratory. A careful review of leading indicators for operations of hazardous facilities, that is, events that are precursors to low probability-high consequence accidents, suggested that laboratory performance had been declining. Some employees simply were not complying with regulations or working with regulatory agencies or bodies, including NNSA and the rest of the Department of Energy. It is this culture that we, and the laboratory’s senior managers, are trying to reverse.
[end quote]

Greg Mello

Anonymous said...

You're putting us in a difficult position, Greg. Those of us who work here *know* that LANL is totally screwed up, safety procedures included. But now you want us to take NNSA's word on this? Sorry, I don't believe anything that comes out of NNSA.

Greg said...

You make a good point, 11:51.

Anonymous said...

We have heard by the grapevine that people at LANL who are officially supposed to record accidents by DOE standards have been told to "cook the books," so that Bechtel reaches its goal of 30% reduction in reported incidents in its first year of management. And, lo and behold: they have succeeded! What a wonderful surprise! Aren't you all just "thrilled"? ... Um, so, you're saying that you're NOT surprised?

Also by the grapevine: those intrepid people who tried to do the reporting "by the book" (as opposed to the Betty Crocker book) were put at the very top of the fresh new RIF list.

Are there any reporters out there still looking at this blog?

... Hello? ... No? ... Ah, well, corporate "bidness" as usual ...

Anonymous said...

New DNFSB Letter
John E. Mansfield, Vice Chairman
Joseph F. Bader
Larry W. Brown
Peter S. Winokur

625 Indiana Avenue, NW, Suite 700 Washington, D.C. 20004-290 1
Peter S. Winokur (202) 694-7000 - -

October 23, 2007

The Honorable Thomas P. D'Agostino
Administrator National Nuclear Security Administration
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, S W
Washington, DC 20585-070 1

Dear Mr. D'Agostino:

The National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) current plan for sustained manufacturing of plutonium pits, essential to national security, relies on continued operation of the 55-year-old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CNIR) facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) believes that
continued operation of the CMR facility in its current condition poses significant risks to workers
and the public. Given the age, material condition, nuclear material inventory, and seismic
capacity of CMR, it is important that NNSA fully understand these risks in its continued use of
the facility.

The CMR facility is known to have serious vulnerabilities, such as the lack of robust building confinement to prevent a release of radioactivity during an accident. In the late 1990s,
the Department of Energy (DOE) decided to scale down a planned CMR facility upgrade project
and focus on safety system upgrades required to support safe operation until the CMR Replacement Project was completed in 2010. This decision to abandon a conlplete facility
upgrade was due prin~arily to the identification of a seismic fault under two wings and the
susceptibility of all the wings to structural collapse due to ground motion from a 500-year return
period earthquake. While subsequent actions were taken to reduce combustibles and material-at-risk in the CMR facility, the safety of the facility has not been reassessed since the governing
safety basis was approved in 1998.
In a letter to the Board dated February 16. 1999, the DOE Office of Defense Programs enclosed a copy of the "Strategy for Managing Risks at the CMR Facility at LANL." In that document, DOE outlined near-term and long-term actions to manage the risk at the CMR facility and continue safe operations until 2010. It was envisioned that the CMR Replacelllent Project would be completed by 2010; however, the Replacement Project has experienced signiiicant
delays, is now nominally projected for completion in 2016, and faces continued susceptibility to
year-to-year budgetary uncertainty. Consequently, the CMR facility will likely be required to
support pit production activities to 2016 and beyond.

The Honorable Thomas P. D'Agostino Page 2

The Board understands that LANL plans to develop a CMR facility safety basis for post-2010 operations, with approval and implementation of this new safety basis in 2009. It is unlikely that this effort will eliminate or mitigate the safety risks of operating the CMR facility
beyond 2010 without significant facility upgrades or mission changes. This timetable leaves
little time for NNSA to complete any necessary safety system upgrades or identify alternative
strategies for meeting national security priorities. As noted above, the situation is further
exacerbated by delays and continued budgetary uncertainty afflicting the CMR Replacement
Project. Therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 2286b(d), the Board requests that NNSA submit within
60 days of receipt of this letter a report and briefing providing (1) a safety rationale for
continuing the operation of CMR, and (2) a detailed schedule of NNSA's actions to assure safe
operation of this facility.

A. J. Eggen erger
c: The Honorable J. Clay Sell
Mr. Donald L. Winchell, Jr.
Mr. Mark B. Whitaker, Jr.

Anonymous said...

"goal of 30% reduction in reported incidents"

That's easy. Just keep people idle, as has been the case for months now, and in some cases years. But don't report when people clunk their heads falling off their chairs while they dozing off from boredom. Walla...30% reduction!

Anonymous said...

So where is the list of accidents?

The only reason I can see to keep it secret is so that nobody can tell if the accidents they know about were excluded to make the 30% reduction target.