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New audit critical of Los Alamos lab management on fixing problems, safety issues

By Mark Oswald / Journal Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 at 6:27pm

SANTA FE – A new audit is critical of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s system for taking corrective action to solve management problems or correct deficiencies, including on health and safety issues.

The report by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General says the lab’s corrective action program “did not always adequately address issues, did not effectively prevent their recurrence and did not consistently identify systemic problems.”

The report says auditors reviewed 196 “high significance” management issues between from January 2009 through February 2014, and almost half — 46 percent — were closed out “without addressing the root cause.”

An example was an August 2010 chemical spill and hazardous waste cleanup at a waste management site. The corrective action plan called for specific changes to prevent the same thing from happening again, “but those changes were not made.” A procedure was revised but “did not address the specific handling and packaging issues that LANL determined contributed to the spill,” says the audit.

In another case, discrepancies with nuclear material control and accountability operations resulted in plans for 16 corrective actions, but five were never completed, with the omissions including failure to address errors in nuclear material inventory, the audit states. “Systemic issues” were not properly identified at the lab’s stalled plutonium and tritium facilities, according to the audit.

The audit found there are indications that LANL “under-categorizes risk and, therefore, does not apply the appropriate level of attention to safety and health issues, including nuclear safety issues.”

On the positive side, the audit gave a good review to a program to allow employees to raise concerns and have them investigated without retaliation. This program was “generally effective,” but the lab “did not always meet its internal goal for resolving concerns within 90 days,” the audit said.

On Tuesday, a LANL spokesman said: “The Laboratory is working closely with NNSA (the National Nuclear Safety Administration) to address the findings of the DOE-IG Audit Report. The Laboratory and NNSA are very serious about environment safety and health issues, and the Laboratory’s ability to deliver on mission requirements as safely as possible.”

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group research and advocacy group, noted that the audit found lab subcontracts that did not include required provisions for a “different professional opinions” process for raising technical concerns related to environmental, health or safety issues. The subcontracts included those for packaging radioactive waste for transport to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, which has been shut down for two years because a waste drum from Los Alamos leaked. Another cited subcontract was for design of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, a project abandoned after about $500 million was spent.

“The OIG’s findings are extremely serious” and “tie together a lot of LANL’s problems and illustrate why serious problems keep recurring,” said Mello. He said “there is simply no serious commitment, or effective system in place, to understand and correct problems at LANL.”

Mello called for initiation of a process to change LANL, now operated by private consortium Los Alamos National Security LCC, to a government owned and operated facility. The DOE already has announced that the $2 billion lab operating contract will be rebid in the next couple of years because LANS has failed to achieve adequate performance reviews.


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