SANTA FE, N.M. — In a recent letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, a federal nuclear safety panel says Los Alamos National Laboratory came up short during several exercises, drills and simulations intended to show how the lab would respond to potential emergencies, such as radioactive leaks, hazardous materials spills, an active shooter or an earthquake.
Dating back to 2014, the staff of the congressionally chartered Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board “found numerous weaknesses in specific areas of demonstrated emergency response,” and with the drills and exercise programs themselves, says a report attached to the letter sent to Perry on Oct. 11.
Among a long list of criticisms and findings, the report says LANL crews regularly failed at establishing adequate incident command capabilities during the simulated emergencies. There was a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities, ineffective coordination of responses to the emergency scene and inadequate communications, among other shortcomings.
The exercises also showed delays in evacuations or getting emergency medical responders to those likely to be injured.
Some of the problems were basic. In an exercise at the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility in 2015, radios needed for emergency response were locked in a room that couldn’t be accessed.
Also in 2015, at Technical Area 48, national lab personnel didn’t know how to use the public address system or whether it would reach everyone in the complex. As a result, workers “continued to travel through the (simulated) spill area, unaware of the hazard.”
A spokesman for LANL had no comment. A statement was provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency under the U.S. Department of Energy that includes the nation’s nuclear weapons labs.
“NNSA and LANL have a comprehensive emergency management program in place that is routinely tested and validated through drills and exercises, with a focus on continuous improvement,” said NNSA spokesperson Lindsey Geisler.
“As noted in the DNFSB’s letter, NNSA and LANL are taking proactive measures to strengthen emergency preparedness and response based on lessons learned from these drills and exercises. NNSA is committed to having world-class emergency management capabilities to protect our employees, the public and the environment.”
Despite the findings, the DNFSB says in its letter to Perry, the board decided against issuing a “final recommendation regarding the weaknesses in emergency preparedness and response” at LANL. Such a recommendation would have required a formal response of acceptance or rejection from DOE.
“We understand that NNSA and LANL have begun to address many of these weaknesses,” the letter says.
Some of the other problems listed in the report include:
• In a 2016 exercise over a simulated sulfuric acid spill, “poor decisions” by incident commanders left two workers ordered to shelter in place in a room adjacent to the spill zone for more than hour, leaving the workers potentially overexposed to the hazardous material. Everyone should have been moved at least 100 meters from the spill, the report says.
• In another 2016 exercise, this one simulating mass casualties at the lab’s Technical Area 55, there were “multiple examples of a lack of focus on worker safety and a lack of coordination between responders in the unified incident command.” Command and control issues led to a 90-minute delay in providing medical care for the injured, “despite emergency medical responders waiting in proximity to the event scene.”
It was left to security personnel, not trained to provide medical care, to transport patients. Also, the security teams were “standing unprotected” in what was supposed to be a contamination plume “for the duration of the exercise.” At another TA 55 exercise, responders travelled through an area designated as a hazardous materials release plume, and a lab emergency management crew and a haz-mat team “proceeded downwind of the event,” actions that in a real emergency “could have exposed emergency responders to the event hazards.”
• Also in 2016, during an active-shooter exercise at the lab’s Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility, the Los Alamos Police Department was not part of the simulation. The local police “would have responded and participated in a unified incident command in an actual active shooter event,” says the safety board’s report.
“The exercise failed to demonstrate the integration of a key responder in a unified incident command structure.”
• In a 2015 earthquake exercise (the lab sits on a seismic fault line), there were no contingency plans for what happens if members of the LANL’s emergency response organization must shelter in place, so members of the organization were unable to get to the emergency operations center “in a timely manner.”
“At other DOE sites,” the safety board reported, members of the emergency response group “can participate remotely if they are sheltered-in-place.”
• Parts of the lab’s Area G don’t have smoke detection or heat sensors installed, despite the fact such devices are listed as “indicators” in documents.
• During a simulated fire exercise at TA 55 in 2015, a real air monitor alarm – not related to the exercise – went off. The TA 55 operations center didn’t notice the alarm for about 20 minutes.
More broadly, the report says federal oversight of emergency preparedness at LANL has not been effective. Neither the NNSA nor its Los Alamos Field Office completed required assessments and evaluations, the DNFSB said.
Also, the board’s staff “observed a lack of self-criticism in LANL’s critique and exercise evaluation process, and weaknesses in the corrective action program that result in the recurrence of issues.”