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Senator seeks answers on LANL’s nuclear safety

Posted: Saturday, Aug 23, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

Senator McCaskill
U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill

U.S. senator has asked the National Nuclear Security Administration to report to Congress by Thursday on the costs and safety of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s weapons production program and, in particular, the potential for critical accidents.

In early August, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a ranking member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Frank Klotz, administrator of the NNSA, saying she had serious concerns about poor federal oversight and management of the laboratory and requesting a report.

The inquiry was triggered by a series of investigative reports by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, which were published in The New Mexican and other newspapers earlier this summer. The series highlighted a number of serious incidents at Los Alamos’ plutonium facility, events that could have led to significant radiological releases and worker deaths. Poor management has resulted in unsafe working conditions, injured workers and federal violations at the plutonium facility and other sites, and senior officials rarely were penalized for the problems, the stories said.

The investigative series is among a number of critical looks at the lab’s safety record in recent months. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy, raised questions at a hearing in Santa Fe in June about the lab’s ability to handle increasing quantities of plutonium. The Energy Department also launched an investigation after plutonium from the lab was shipped out of state by air rather than cargo truck, violating federal regulations.

Los Alamos was the only nuclear site that failed its annual review for nuclear criticality safety in fiscal year 2016, a program designed to prevent severe nuclear accidents. The lab was graded as “adequate but needs improvement” the previous year, according to a federal report.

In her Aug. 3 letter to Klotz, McCaskill said, “Private firms contracted to operate and maintain these facilities have not been held accountable in a meaningful way for the safety lapses that occurred under their watch.”

The lab is currently operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium that includes the University of California, Bechtel, BWXT Technical Services Group Inc. and AECOM, but new management will take over in 2018. LANS lost a chance to renew its lucrative contract after a serious of safety issues in 2014, including the improper packaging of a waste drum at Los Alamos that ultimately burst and released radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, one of the most costly nuclear accidents on record.

“I have previously noted my concerns regarding DOE’s poor oversight and management of its contracts and its inability to properly exercise effective oversight of its budget,” McCaskill said in the letter.

She asked the National Nuclear Security Administration to report on the current state of operations and safety testing at Los Alamos’ plutonium facility, known as PF-4, and whether safety standards have been met. She also asked the agency to provide costs associated with closing the facility, how much of the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2018 will go to improving safety standards, and if any penalties will be imposed on the lab or its management contractors.

“Does NNSA feel it is meeting its duty to prevent dangerous nuclear accident?” she asked.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email that McCaskill’s letter “raises some very serious and important questions, and I hope the NNSA answers these questions in a timely manner.”

“Safety is always the top priority,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, also a New Mexico Democrat, said in a statement, “but we also need to be able to answer tough questions and show that we are getting it right. We all need to be focused on strengthening and improving the mission in New Mexico, and Los Alamos and the community can count me as a partner in that effort.”

In an email to The New Mexican on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Los Alamos Field Office said the NNSA has received McCaskill’s letter and is working with Congress to answer questions. “Safety is paramount at the National Nuclear Security Administration,” Toni Chiri said, “and we have uncompromising standards for our labs, plants and sites to perform work in a safe and secure manner.”

Soon after the Center for Public Integrity published its series, Klotz released a statement saying the agency had been holding the lab accountable. It withheld $82 million in award fees for Los Alamos operators between 2013 and 2016 as a result of safety incidents at the plutonium facility, he said.

“We have uncompromising standards for our plants and laboratories to perform work in a safe and secure manner,” Klotz said in the statement.

He also said the lab was on track to create new plutonium pits — the softball-size plutonium triggers within nuclear weapons. The lab is expected to create as many as 80 pits by 2040.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said in email Wednesday that “PF-4 is operational. It is operating consistent with its established safety requirements including required testing. Testing is conducted daily at PF-4 to establish the functional aspects of the facility to ensure the safety of the workers and the public.”

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament-focused nonprofit, said in a statement that McCaskill’s letter is “only the tip of the iceberg” of problems at Los Alamos.

“Bad management is a feature,” he said. “It is partly why people work at these facilities (LANL in particular) in the first place — low professional standards, high salaries, and lack of accountability.”

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


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