Nov 29, 2007
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The nation's nuclear weapons laboratories need tougher safety oversight to fix a recent track record that includes dozens of lapses, accidents and near misses, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office review of New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratories came in response to security breaches and safety concerns at Los Alamos.
The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, said it found a lax attitude toward safety procedures, weaknesses in identifying and correcting safety problems, and inadequate oversight by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Department of Energy. The review cited nearly 60 serious accidents or near misses since 2000.
The GAO recommended that the NNSA retain independent federal oversight, but said it should start making annual progress reports to Congress. The report also criticized the NNSA's heavy reliance on contractors' own safety management controls for oversight.
It noted the NNSA was strengthening oversight and taking other steps, but said those efforts were still under way and it was too early to see what effect they might have.
John Broehm, an NNSA spokesman in Washington, said agency officials generally agreed with the recommendations, but felt the report "was a little misleading" in its implication that the labs have major problems.
"A lot of it is worker safety vs. nuclear safety," he said.
"We take nuclear safety and worker safety very seriously. But when you look at the size and scope of what we do, we feel the numbers are pretty good," Broehm said.
Accidents and nuclear safety violations contributed to temporary shutdowns at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore in 2004 and 2005, but safety problems persist, the report said.
Los Alamos shut down virtually all its divisions for review in the summer of 2004 after two computer disks believed to contain classified information were reported missing and an intern suffered an eye injury from a laser. The lab wasn't back into full operation until early 2005.
Accidents at the labs included workers being exposed to radiation, inhaling toxic vapors and being shocked. No one was killed, but some workers were seriously injured and lab facilities were damaged, the GAO said.
Among other shortcomings cited in the report:
• Seven workers at a Los Alamos plutonium-processing facility received "significant doses of radiation" in a 2000 accident because the lab failed to correct earlier problems.
• Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore violated safety rules eight times since 2000, with penalties totaling nearly $3 million for Los Alamos and $808,000 for Lawrence Livermore. Sandia has not been cited for a safety violation in that time.
• Liquid chlorine dioxide formed and exploded during a 2002 experiment at Los Alamos. The experiment's two researchers noticed a rapid rise in temperature and fled the room seconds before the explosion.
• A 2003 accident at a Sandia construction site seriously injured two workers.
• A Los Alamos worker opened a package containing radioactive material in 2005 and unknowingly contaminated himself, his clothing and items he touched. The contamination was not discovered for 11 days and in the meantime, the worker spread it to his home, other places in Los Alamos, and relatives' homes in Colorado and Kansas.
[Download the full report here.]