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Our View: Safety first? Not always

Posted: Saturday, September 13, 2014 7:00 pm

The New Mexican

A large-scale study on safety (or the lack thereof) in the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities couldn’t have come at a better time for New Mexico.

After all, the state is home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, all places where dangerous materials are built or stored. With an accident earlier this year at WIPP calling into question the procedures along the supply chain to the underground storage facility, a hard look at safety is essential. (In February, a drum containing radioactive waste from Los Alamos burst and leaked radiation below ground at WIPP, an accident that both exposed workers to radiation and effectively has shut down the storage facility. The exploding drum happened just a few days after a truck fire in the underground nuclear waste facility.)

What’s more, both Sandia and Los Alamos are on course to increase production of various nuclear weapons components. Before that happens, New Mexicans need to know that their safety comes first.

The study was released this month by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and examined 17 facilities in the United States, including three here. According to the findings, Los Alamos, Sandia and WIPP displayed a lack of preparedness for emergencies, something found at facilities across the country — it’s cold comfort to find we are not alone.

To our way of thinking, what happened at WIPP in February could be a fortunate accident. It has caused the Department of Energy to focus on whether safety procedures are being followed, and alerted the rest of us that all might not be well in the secret word of nuclear science and waste storage.

On the WIPP accident’s heels comes the first report of its kind in 15 years. Examining lessons learned in various disasters, everything from oil spills to a Japanese nuclear meltdown, the study seeks to determine whether the U.S. labs are prepared for disasters. One interesting finding is that a focus on catastrophic disasters seems to have slowed efforts to handle the more common yet still dangerous scenarios.

The report’s findings are clear: Facilities need to step up safety training and emergency planning — and the Energy Department must hold administrators’ feet to the fire to ensure proper planning takes place. State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, already unhappy about the Energy Department’s stonewalling his agency on answers about the WIPP accident, also should seek additional training at New Mexico facilities. Should a disaster occur, it is likely that state and local emergency responders will be working with federal workers to protect people and property, so Flynn has every right to demand to see what the facilities are doing. Local governments alo should weigh in and keep their residents informed. (This month, for example, is Santa Fe’s Preparedness Month. Citizens can go to and find ways to be prepared in case of fire or other disaster.).

Sandia was dinged for scheduling evacuation drills rather than real-world exercises that take everyone though disaster or accident possibilities. After being told of the deficiencies, Sandia officials said they had corrected the mistakes but didn’t. So, add dissembling to the list of concerns everyone must have about safety. We need to know that the many contractors who work with the labs also are prepared. One weak link — a careless employee, a failure to inventory storage materials correctly or a contractor switching inert ingredients — can cause a chain reaction that could lead to catastrophe.

What we can do, what we must do, is ensure that when accidents happen, responders are prepared and ready.

Greg Mello comment published:

This is an interesting and helpful editorial.

This idea is to my knowledge novel: "To our way of thinking, what happened at WIPP in February could be a fortunate accident...." Schadenfreude, a bit, given the 22 employees (lightly?) contaminated and the ultimate cost that will range up somewhere towards $1 billion, but if the lessons are heeded it might be a dollar cost worth paying. This newspaper has been far ahead of the pack in reminding NNSA of which facility caused the WIPP shutdown (to wit, LANL) and the need to absorb the "lessons learned."

That said, there is no certainty that LANL will increase pit production, because there is no actual need to do so. High government officials have said as much to me, and there is skepticism about the validity of this mission on Capitol Hill, from which I have just returned. LANL, DOE, and NNSA have "failed" in their promotion of this mission for 25 years, because every time it is closely examined, it falls apart. It's a corporate priority, and a "Cold War II" priority, but not a technical or managerial one. It's not needed for the stockpile, and the stockpile itself not needed in today's full glory, as the military and Joint Chiefs agree.

But for now we are stuck with corporate shills calling the shots, because Obama is so biddable.

As for preparing, don't bother. Stay indoors, then later sell and leave.

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