Jul 11, 2009

Audit Smokes Out Lax Fire Protection at U.S. Nuclear Weapons Lab

Fewer than half of the fire prevention shortcomings examined at the Los Alamos National Laboratory had been fixed after previous evaluation, an Energy Department audit reports

By Katherine Harmon, ScientificAmerican.com

A recent audit of fire prevention measures has scorched the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the facility that created the atomic bomb during World War II and is now the home of top-level national security and radioactive material research.

The report [pdf] by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) inspector general reveals that the lab had failed to address problems pointed out three years ago in an evaluation that found at least 800 fire prevention "deficiencies". The most recent audit, conducted between December 2007 and April 2009, revealed that fewer than half of the 296 audited issues had been fixed.

The subject of fires in the area is especially sensitive after a 2000 blaze charred 43,000 acres (17,400 hectares) that included 7,700 acres (3,100 hectares) of lab property.

"Safeguarding against fires, regardless of origin, is essential to protecting employees, surrounding communities, and national security assets," wrote DoE Inspector General Gregory Friedman.

"If such a fire did occur and was not quickly suppressed," the report authors noted, "there could be a risk that hazardous or radiological material could be released." The authors assert, however, that such a release wouldn't entail "nuclear safety issues.”

A sampling of problems the audit pinpointed include: a request to replace an "unreliable" fire alarm panel in a processed plutonium facility had not been fulfilled; a kitchen hood fire suppression system, required to be tested semiannually, had not been tested in four years; and facility operators did not always have money and time earmarked for fixing outstanding issues.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the contracts for operating the facilities, disagreed with some of the audit's conclusions and attributed any negligence to managerial "weakness" of the lab's former operator, the University of California, which had crossed 32 problems off the list despite not having rectified them. The current contract operator, Los Alamos National Security (a partnership among Bechtel Corp., Babcock & Wilcox's BWX Technologies, the University of California, and the URS Corp.'s Washington Group International), took over after the 2006 evaluation and is in charge of making sure that fire safety standards are followed. The NNSA declined to comment.

In the meantime, the lab has earmarked $4 million to help resolve any lingering problems, and in February it launched a new Fire Protection Division "to help prioritize and identify these issues—and get to work on them," says Los Alamos spokesperson Kevin Roark.

"We believe we've made considerable progress," Roark adds. Among the improvements, he notes, is the replacement of thousands of outdated sprinkler heads.

The $5.9-billion laboratory consists of some 1,800 buildings and sits on 25,600 acres (10,350 hectares) of arid New Mexico land, 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the state capital, Santa Fe.


Anonymous said...

Frank, you have already posted this as, "Jun 28, 2009, Lab addresses fire protection criticism, By Roger Snodgrass, Los Alamos Monitor Editor," at http://lanl-the-rest-of-the-story.blogspot.com/2009_06_01_archive.html, with a link to "Audit Report, Fire Protection Deficiencies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, DOE/IG-0816, June 2009," as well.

But, you missed to post, e.g. you didn´t want to post:

(1) "On Eve of Obama´s Moscow Summit, Experts Warn of Growing Risks to U.S. Nuclear Deterrent," with links to "U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting It Right," and "Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent" by Senator Jon Kyl (Rep-Arizona) and AEI Fellow Richard Perle in The Wall Street Journal, at http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/p18110.xml.

(2) "Arms Control Amnesia" by Dr. Keith B. Payne in The Wall Street Journal, at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124693303362103841.html.

(3) "Why We Don´t Want a Nuclear-Free World" in The Wall Street Journal, at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124726489588925407.html.

PS: "The $5.9 billion laboratory [LANL]," WTF? (It is $2.2 billion at best in annual budget.)

Frank Young said...

It's a different story on the same IG report. It seemed timely in light of recent events at TA-35. Also, I think it is only a day old.

I missed (1) and it's now pretty old.

I don't recall seeing (2). I'll try to look at it but I'm really busy right now.

I read (3) this morning and haven't decided yet.

PS I didn't write the story.

Thank you for your input. If you don't mind, I suggest you google how to embed a link in your comments. Or email me and I'll explain. Other readers are more likely to read them if they can just click your link. At least don't add a period to the end of the link please.

Anonymous said...

Forget the lax fire protection at LANL. What about the lax fire protection over at Bandelier National Monument.

The park service has refused to put out a growing fire on park land. Today (Saturday), the smoke from this fire is overwhelming in Los Alamos. Lots of older and weaker people are beginning to go into respiratory distress.

What are those idiots over at Bandelier park trying to do -- make a second attempt to burn down Los Alamos? The fire is beginning to spread with all this summer heat.

Put that God damn fire out, your park ranger idiots!

Anonymous said...

We don't need no stinking fire protection. Just park a fire truck next to my sports car.


Anonymous said...

What happened at TA-35?

Frank Young said...

This is from a comment on the Budget Soup post:

On July 8, just before COB, a student disposed of acetone, a flammable organic liquid, into a TA-35 acid waste container. The student then left the building. Shortly after, the acid waste container exploded. The explosion burst an adjacent nitric acid storage container; the nitric Acid mixed with the chemical waste and pooled on the floor of the laboratory. Two of the student's mentors then came into the lab to attempt to treat the mixed waste spill. One of the mentors subequently had to be taken to the Los Alamos hospital with respiratory symptoms. Hazmat teams responded and in their attempt to contain and clean up the waste, they (apparently using incorrect chemicals) caused another reaction that released a large cloud of toxic brown gas. The hazmat responders were forced to leave the area, they then evacuated the building leaving the chemical fume hood on. The toxic gas was seen discharging from the roof of the building, so they cleared the entire area and shut down traffic on all roads leading to the site. Sometime after the toxic cloud disappated, the hazmat team reentered the building and proceeded to clean up the lab (apparently with the correct chemicals this time). One wing of the building was still isolated on Thursday morning but the rest of the building had been reopened.

Does anyone else see a boatload of trouble coming?
7/10/09 3:54 PM

Anonymous said...

Was this student a chemist?

Frank Young said...

Don't know. If so they obviously haven't moved into the best and brightest category yet.

Anonymous said...

Has the student's workplace been searched for contraband tea?

Frank Young said...

I don't know that either but I think you have a good shot at the next comment of the week. Thanks for the laugh!

Anonymous said...

"official lanl announcement"

Be careful of mixing certain chemical waste

Last week, a waste container overpressurized and broke several nearby chemical containers under a hood resulting in a spill. The container overpressurized after a solution containing acetone was placed in a closed container containing acid waste. Click here for more information about chemical compatibility.

Anonymous said...

Expect to see more mandatory online training and some stricter WFSZ policies. That always gives the LANS managers a nice, warm feeling.

Anonymous said...

who was involved?

Anonymous said...

"...a solution containing acetone was placed in a closed container containing acid waste"

Well of course it was a closed container. NMED fines us up the wazoo if the container is even slightly cracked open. Sadly, this prevents us from ensuring a pressure relief route in the event of even a small human error.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the San Miguel fire out at Bandelier is going to be allowed to burn all summer long. Enjoy your smokin' summer, Los Alamos.

shovelhead ed said...

Hi Frank..... long time gone brother. How ya been. It's Shovelhead Ed. Thought I'd pop in, say howdy. Just a nutty, nutty existence these past days/months. How 'bout all this stuff. Everything from enlightened forest service officials now to student chemists!! WOW. And people say nothing ever happens up here. Geeminy Christmas man. Couldn't be further from the truth. Writing this posthumously allows me the gift of hindsight, and being 20/20 one can certainly say whew...glad this all turned out well huh?? Fortunately there was not a repeat of the evergreen and deciduous hellfire that befell us years ago... and we did not all keel over dead with green faces when the student chemist "dropped acid". LOL Life's good!!! I'll get around to showing up here more often. You in country here or in one of our other glorious 49 states??!! Greatest of days to you...hope to talk soon. Please forgive the sebatical.

Doug Roberts said...


You ever go to De Colores on Friday? I sometimes play music there with Tom. Let me know -- I'd enjoy meeting you.


Frank Young said...

Good to hear from you Ed! Things are crazy here but I hope they get back to normal by the end of next week. Sorry to be brief but I'm about 160 emails behind right now. I'll catch up with you later.