Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2015 9:32 pm | Updated: 12:01 am, Fri Dec 11, 2015.
By Justin Horwath
The New Mexican
A new report says federal officials lack an effective program for tracking and fixing safety problems, including “high risk deficiencies,” at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The report, released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, says the National Nuclear Security Administration’s field office that oversees the department’s contract with the lab has not implemented an effective issues management program. Such a program helps identify and correct safety and health deficiencies raised by employees and contractors or in external audits of the office, the report states, so the Department of Energy can “ensure environment, safety, and health concerns.”
The audit is the latest federal report to point to systemic problems at the lab, which has been under sharp scrutiny from state and federal authorities since the February 2014 release of radiation from a storage drum shipped from the lab to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The nuclear storage facility near Carlsbad is still closed due to the incident.
Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, in an email called the Department of Energy’s findings “serious” and said they “strongly hint of de facto official ‘forgetting’ of various identified problems at LANL before they are fixed,” a practice the department “should correct right away.”
Mello said Los Alamos National Security, the private contractor that runs the lab and employs most of the staff, “has an extensive lobby operation in Washington as well as in New Mexico and has many powerful friends on Capitol Hill, including the New Mexico congressional delegation.
“The Field Office is the primary check on LANL’s safety and operational integrity,” Mello said. “These findings suggest that [the Department of Energy], for one reason or another, is not tracking corrective actions at all where federal regulations, including safety regulations, are known to have been violated by the contractor.”
The audit found that the Los Alamos field office “frequently did not enter issues identified in assessments into its corrective action tracking system” and that when issues at the lab were entered into the system, 81 percent “were not entered within the first 90 days following receipt of the assessment report, and 59 percent of the records had incomplete, inaccurate, or invalid closure data.”
The audit examined 34 of 110 deficiencies entered into the lab’s tracking system between 2009 and February 2014. The audit also examined internal and external reviews of the lab’s safety performance between 2009 and 2012.
The audit found the lab did not enter at least 53 deficiencies into its tracking system, including “findings regarding the lack of training on conducting self-assessments and the lack of emergency management annual exercises.”
The audit also found the lab had incomplete data on whether deficiencies had been corrected on issues such as engineering, fire protection, staffing and maintenance.
“No objective evidence was provided for closing a 2009 finding that the Field Office was not performing effective oversight of LANL’s nuclear maintenance program,” the audit states. “The Field Office closed the issue by stating that it performed fiscal year 2010 assessments. However, we found that the Field Office did not complete the planned assessment.”
The audit stated that lab officials “acknowledged that their implementation” of the issues management program “could be improved, but stated that to ensure safe and efficient operations, they must focus their limited resources on overseeing the contractor.
“They noted that, as a result, consistent use of issue management process may not occur,” the audit stated.
A lab spokeswoman said Wednesday that the lab would not comment beyond management responses contained in the audit.
The lab’s management concurred with all four of the audit’s recommendations, saying that the field office is “committed to near-term improvement and will take action to reinforce existing requirements” and that it is working with the National Nuclear Safety Administration to enhance oversight.
Management officials with the field office also said the office has an “excellent track record” of dealing with employee concerns, and “significant issues” identified from those concerns are formally documented, while more operational issues such as “broken Venetian blinds” are quickly addressed rather than formally documented. The office will update its procedures on tracking those concerns by June 30, management officials told auditors.
Justin Horwath can be reached at 986-3017 or email@example.com.