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Los Alamos lab ‘near miss’ probed

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A U.S. Department of Energy office is investigating what’s described as a “near miss to a fatality” at Los Alamos National Laboratory, apparently after a worker went into a room despite the sounding of a low-oxygen alarm.

A letter last week to the lab’s president posted on a DOE website says the incident took place on Sept. 13 when an employee of Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), which runs the lab under a federal contract, “entered a room containing an oxygen deficient atmosphere.”

The incident – which becomes public as the lab faces scrutiny for other safety issues – revealed potential deficiencies in implementation of “requirements for emergency response and pressure system design,” says the Dec. 6 letter from Kevin L. Dressman, acting director of the Office of Enforcement in DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments.

LANS reported the incident to DOE in a filing titled: “Near Miss: Worker Enters Room During Low Oxygen Alarm Activation,” according to the letter.

No elaboration on what happened was available from the lab or the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-autonomous wing of the DOE that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons labs.

“We are cooperating fully with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Enforcement,” said LANL spokesman Matt Nerzig.

An NNSA spokesperson said in a statement: “The National Nuclear Security Administration is committed to ensuring the safety of our workforce. We work closely with DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments’ Office of Enforcement to verify effective implementation of DOE’s worker safety and health regulations at all of our plants and laboratories. We expect Los Alamos National Laboratory to cooperate fully with this investigation by the Office of Enforcement.”

Dressman’s letter to outgoing lab president Charles McMillan said the investigation will include an on-site visit at Los Alamos and interviews with people who work for LANS, a private consortium that includes the University of California and Bechtel.

Safety issues at the lab this year have included mistaken shipping of radioactive material aboard a commercial cargo plane and placement of too much plutonium in one location. The lab said of the latter incident that there was “never any risk of a criticality incident,” in which an uncontrolled nuclear reaction takes place.

A report this fall by an independent safety oversight board hit the lab for shortcomings in its handling of simulations of potential disasters like an earthquake or an active shooter. And NNSA is in the midst of a study of whether to continue making plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear weapons, at LANL or to move the work to a South Carolina site.

The lab said in an internal memo earlier this year that operations at its plutonium facility and its safety programs have successfully undergone more than a dozen independent external reviews and that it’s close to being fully operational after safety problems forced work to be suspended in 2013, according to an Associated Press report.

Last week’s notice of an investigation over the “near miss” emerged on Monday’s deadline for bidders to submit proposals for a new LANL operating contract that will become effective in October.

LANS, the lab’s operating contractor since 2006, failed to get adequate performance reviews for an extension of the $2.2 billion annual contract beyond the current fiscal year. LANS’ most costly error was the improper packing of a drum of radioactive waste at LANL that later burst at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad, shutting down the nation’s underground nuclear waste storage facility.

The University of California, part of the LANS consortium, confirmed Monday that it has submitted a proposal for the new LANL contract, but a spokesperson wouldn’t say whether the university has any bidding partners. The Austin American Statesman reported over the weekend that UCal will partner with Texas A&M University, whose board had previously voted to proceed with development of a proposal to manage LANL. Bechtel had no comment on whether it has an interest in the new contract.

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