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At forum, LANL officials admit to struggling with safety issues, management

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2016 11:30 pm | Updated: 7:37 pm, Wed Mar 23, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

An independent federal agency tasked with advising the president and the U.S. Energy Department on public health and safety concerns at the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities questioned senior Los Alamos National Laboratory officials Tuesday about their ability to respond to emergencies at Area G, the lab’s main nuclear waste storage area.

About 100 people gathered for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board forum at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, where officials admitted the lab continues to wrangle with a lack of proper waste management and emergency response training, understaffed departments and a culture in which workers feel silenced from alerting senior management about safety problems.

Along with top lab officials, members of the crowd included Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration officials, representatives from New Mexico’s congressional delegation and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn.

The board focused on the fallout from a Feb. 14, 2014, incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico, in which an improperly packaged drum from LANL burst, causing a radiation leak. The incident forced the plant to suspend operations at WIPP and prompted several federal investigations that highlighted safety violations at the lab, including the absence of an emergency response system at Area G.

More than 3,500 drums of transuranic waste are currently being held at Area G — waste created as a result of Cold War nuclear weapons production.

And while lab Energy Department officials said plans are underway to treat the waste properly and put precautions in place to protect the site from a wildfire or radiation leak, the lab is not currently prepared to address such disasters, they said.

In December 2015, as a result of numerous management problems at LANL, the Department of Energy announced it will not renew the $2.2 billion management contract held by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium run by the University of California and Bechtel Corp., when it expires in 2017.

Douglas Hintze, the manager of the Department of Energy’s environmental management field office in Los Alamos — an office that opened one year ago in response to the WIPP leak — said Tuesday that new emergency response drills have been put in place at the lab, but “we are at the walking, not the running stage.”

The operation of the drills are “adequate, but it is not at the level it needs to be,” he said.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also raised questions about how the lab will handle new waste produced as a result of plans to restart the production of plutonium pits — the trigger for nuclear weapons.

NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon was unable to say for certain whether the lab would have the capacity to store new and existing waste over the next two years, if WIPP doesn’t reopen in that time frame.

Asked by the board if issues regarding whistleblower protections and workers’ concerns reporting problems at the lab had been addressed, lab Deputy Director Rick Kacich said, “I won’t say it has been fixed or unfixed — our performance is on a continuum and we are set about to improve it.”

More than 20 members of the public spoke at Tuesday’s forum, posing questions on community health fears due to radioactive waste at the lab, voicing concerns about the lab’s mismanagement and making a pleas for the lab to refrain from restarting plutonium activities.

“I would like to ask your help in preventing from any more plutonium,” said a Jemez Springs resident. “We have had enough bad things come here from outside.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction: March 23, 2015

This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified a Los Alamos National Laboratory official who responded to questions about efforts to address workers' concerns about reporting problems at the lab. The official who spoke at the forum was LANL Deputy Director Rick Kacich, not Director Charles McMillan.


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