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LANL’s ex-operator cited for another safety violation

SANTA FE – The nuclear security wing of U.S. Department of Energy has issued preliminary notice of a “serious” safety violation for a 2017 mishap at Los Alamos National Laboratory that the DOE previously described as a “near miss to a fatality.”

The violation notice was sent recently to the lab’s former operating consortium, Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), whose management tenure ended Oct. 31. A series of safety issues prompted the federal government to rebid the $2 billion-plus annual operating contract at Los Alamos, and LANS did not submit a proposal to keep the contract.

The Dec. 20 notice from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) says the 2017 incident — where a worker responding to a room’s alarm was exposed to an oxygen-deficient atmosphere — revealed deficiencies “of high safety significance.”

For failures related to hazard identification, assessment, prevention and abatement, LANS was cited for a Level 1 violation. That’s a serious violation deemed to exist in a workspace “if there is a potential that death or serious physical harm could result,” says the notice letter.

But a LANL spokesman, in an email statement, said, “While it is now clear that no employees were in imminent danger due to the low-oxygen alarm event at building 40, it is also clear that well-established procedures and practices for responding to a low-oxygen alarm were not fully followed. We need to and will do better. In the interests of their own safety, we have reminded our workers to keep safety uppermost in their minds at all times.”

The lab is now run by Triad National Security, LLC, which consists of the University of California, Texas A&M and Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, a huge scientific nonprofit that has been involved in other national lab operations. The University of California was also a part of LANS, along with the Bechtel corporation and two other private entities.

The recent letter also provides notice of a Level 2 violation — where there’s said to be a safety violation but not one that has the potential to be fatal or cause serious harm — for deficiencies in management responsibilities and training. LANS could contest the violations.

The letter from Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the NNSA, says the violations carry a potential penalty of $139,000. But Gordon-Hagerty said no civil penalties are proposed now because the low-oxygen event was taken into account when NNSA assessed the amount of fees to award to LANS for fiscal 2017.

For that year, NNSA initially gave LANS its $41.4 million in fixed fees and only 70 percent of “at-risk” fees for leadership performance — $6.2 million out of a possible $8.5 million — for a total award of $47.6 million.

But a NNSA contracting officer cut the fee another $3.1 million for “inadequate management controls” shown in the lab’s mistake of sending three shipments of radioactive plutonium across the country using a commercial air cargo service. NNSA cited the shipping foul-up and other environmental, health and safety lapses as indicating “a programmatic breakdown” in safety management at the lab and did mention the low-oxygen incident.

The recent notice letter says that in the room where the low-oxygen event took place, LANS had installed an “inappropriate version” of a pressure relief valve, which caused the valve to “freeze in the open position when challenged during overnight operations.” Also, a low-oxygen alarm was located “at a height not obvious to workers” and didn’t include emergency contact procedures.

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