By Raam Wong, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
If a fire ever broke out in one of Los Alamos' nuclear facilities, a new report raises questions about the ability of local firefighters to properly put it out.
The report comes three months after the federal government signed a new agreement in which Los Alamos County's fire department will continue protecting the nuclear weapons lab, a sprawling site that covers 40 square miles.
A cover letter attached to the December report states “there are weaknesses in the current capability to respond to a fire or other emergency event in the unique hazard environments associated with nuclear facilities at [Los Alamos National Laboratory].”
The report by federal safety officials also raises concerns about staffing at the lab, as well as a lack of progress in addressing previously-identified weaknesses in fire protection. A lab spokesman said Tuesday improving fire protection is an ongoing priority.
Recent drills suggest “significant weaknesses” in the capability of firefighters to respond to emergencies in nuclear facilities, according to the report.
In a July 2007 exercise at a facility that handles radioactive waste, for instance, county fire personnel were ineffective in providing first aid to an injured and contaminated subject because of a lack of understanding about the hazard presented by fictional contamination, according to the report.
During another drill, the route used by emergency personnel in responding to a fire at the Plutonium Facility would have spread the contamination, the report states. Personnel also failed to establish “clean and contaminated zone perimeters.”
Despite the problems, “the exercise objectives were rated as having been successfully met in most cases,” according to the report.
The federal government's contract with the county to provide fire services expired in 1997. Since then, protection was provided under renewing 45-day agreements as officials hammered out a new contract.
After some 11 years of negotiating, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the county signed a five-year cooperative agreement in October.
The agreement describes minimum staffing, staffing at key fire stations, and response times for nuclear facility emergencies. It also calls for a nuclear facilities reserve force of seven firefighters that cannot be deployed to nonlab events without notifying NNSA.
The agreement also requires that training plans be reviewed and approved annually by the county and the NNSA .
Fire Chief Douglas MacDonald said he had not yet read the report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and referred questions to the NNSA.
An agency spokesman in Washington, D.C., referred questions to the NNSA's Los Alamos office, which did not return a call for comment.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said in a statement: “We are continually working through the (NNSA's) Los Alamos Site Office with the Los Alamos Fire Department to help improve training, emergency fire scenario exercise activities, and overall fire protection response services.”
Roark said a good indicator of the lab's current capability was the response to a fire in Ancho Canyon last summer that involved more than 40 multiagency firefighters. The fire — sparked by a lab equipment test — was under control in just a few hours, Roark said.
“Of course we believe that fire protection services can always be improved and have always worked toward that end,” the spokesman said.
Weaknesses in the lab's fire protection program were last detailed in 2004 when LANL completed a so-called baseline needs assessment.
Since that time, “minimal progress” has been made in addressing those issues, some of which date back to 1995, according to the report. The lab is now updating that assessment.
Other concerns raised in the report include inadequate staffing in the lab's Fire Protection Group.
Previous evaluations found a need for 10 engineers in the group, while the budgeted staffing level for the positions is only six.
The letter attached to the report asks the NNSA to respond within 90 days with information detailing immediate measures taken to improve fire and emergency response capabilities, a copy of the new baseline needs assessment, and a strategy and schedule for achieving the emergency response capability.