Audit: Nuclear lab lets safety gaps languish for years

Audit: Nuclear lab lets safety gaps languish for years

An obscure facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory for nine years provided vital scientific data approximately a critical gas used in America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, until it was shuttered four years ago due to a raft of safety problems that have stubbornly persisted.

The Energy Department, which oversees & finances the lab’s work, has poured tens of millions of dollars into fixing the problems, yet so far, the expenditures haven’t borne much fruit. The facility – known as the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility – is “vital” to the lab’s national security mission, yet it remains closed, the department’s inspector general said in a report released July 20.

In fact, Los Alamos managers have been unable – after seven years of effort – even to prepare a sound analysis of the site’s safety hazards & the steps being taken to ensure that the radioactive gas at issue does not leak or explode & harm either workers or those living nearby, according to the DOE report.

p>DOE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman said in the report that poor hazard analysis has been a recurrent problem at the lab, & said weaknesses in other projects have remained unfixed from one annual evaluation to the next. The lab, he wrote, “lacked sufficient qualified staff to resolve certain safety issues.”

The purpose of the tritium facility is to refine, mix & analyze that high-hazard gas, which is used in small amounts to boost a nuclear bomb’s pulverizing force. Those who worked at the facility struggled to ensure that monitoring equipment accurately tracked oxygen levels, to avert any chance of a sudden combustion during processing, according to the report. The lab’s own assessments, dating back to 2007, warned that the oxygen monitoring system in the building was unreliable. Energy Department staff in April 2013 cited the oxygen monitoring as one of 450 issues that needed to be addressed there.

Although the lab fixed the oxygen monitoring system last year, & so far has spent $17 million to prepare a comprehensive safety plan, it hasn’t completed the task. “There had been higher safety-related priorities” at the lab, Energy Department staff told auditors.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nonprofit organization that closely monitors the lab, said the report suggests the lab’s managing contractor, Los Alamos National Security LLC – or LANS – a Bechtel-led consortium of private contractors & the University of California, has been nonchalant approximately safety issues.

“It’s obvious when you read this report that [preparing a] documented safety analysis, which is the sole way that DOE manages the safety of nuclear facilities, is seen by LANS as a kind of overhead or paperwork that can be repeatedly kicked down the road, under-resourced & nixed in some political sense,” Mello said.

The Inspector General’s report noted that similar safety problems have blocked operations at a separate lab facility that produces plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. Lab leadership halted operations at that facility two years ago. Revisions to the safety analysis at the Plutonium Facility have dragged on for six years & cost nearly $10 million so far.

In all, the report said, Los Alamos lab officials failed to show they had addressed 11 percent of the 98 high-hazard concerns identified by Energy Department inspectors between January 2010 & February 2014.

Instead of acting on a November 2011 DOE directive that said the lab should review whether its training of workers who handle hazardous nuclear materials was effective,  managers decided the task would be “moved out a ways,” according to the report.  But they never revisited it, the report added. Similarly, the lab hadn’t completed more than a third of the 36 lower-risk directives from the department over the same four-year span.

There’s more to this story. Click here to read the rest at the Center for Public Integrity.

This story is part of Up in Arms. National security-related events, reports and findings that deserve more attention. Click here to read more stories in this blog.

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Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Energy Departmentnuclear weaponsLos Alamos National Laboratory

Source: “Center for Public Integrity”

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