In Triad’s first year operating Los Alamos National Laboratory, we have put in place changes to the way we do business. As a nonprofit, our commitment is marked by developing the workforce of the future and investing in the communities where our employees live. And nothing is more important than the safety of our workforce, neighbors and the environment.
Our national security mission includes research with nuclear materials and producing plutonium pits, the softball-sized cores of nuclear weapons. We manage the potential hazards by invigorating our safety culture through recruiting and training, implementing a safety program based on best practices and continuous improvement, and transparency. Our leadership team is taking steps to address safety laboratory-wide. While we have made progress, we continue to make improvements.
To protect personnel from a criticality accident – a runaway, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction – we employ the best practices of criticality safety, a field invented at Los Alamos. There has not been a criticality accident at Los Alamos in 60 years. By introducing rigorous policies and procedures, implementing safety controls, maintaining operational transparency and developing the best workforce, we have set up a system that enables personnel to pause work far short of a serious accident – an important first step.
These pauses can reveal a deviation from our processes or a criticality infraction. Despite the scary name, a criticality infraction does not mean materials have gone critical in a nuclear chain reaction. It’s not a nuclear criticality accident, a runaway chain reaction or a nuclear explosion. A criticality infraction occurs when one of our engineered safety controls has not been followed to the letter.
As a learning organization, the laboratory takes infractions, no matter how minor, seriously. Each, while not posing a serious threat to health or safety, provides an opportunity to improve. We may pause work for a few hours to ensure everything is going as planned, or, if needed, longer. Pauses do not reveal a safety failure. They are the hallmark of a healthy, safety-conscious work culture.
We want to reduce infractions and intensify focus on criticality safety through hiring and training, including hands-on criticality experiments. Personnel work with nuclear materials in a safe, controlled environment to get firsthand knowledge of nuclear material operations and criticality safety program requirements so they can recognize and address situations.
We encourage a questioning attitude; it is the linchpin of a safety culture. Whether it’s our work at a firing site, in the laboratory or on the construction site, a questioning attitude keeps employees alert to potential hazards and helps us learn from mistakes. A questioning attitude is a sign of a healthy, learning workforce culture.
Similarly, employees are encouraged to pause work if they see a concern. We do this out of an abundance of caution and because we are committed to continuous improvement. While only some events signal a need for change, they all provide opportunities to double-check our processes. We want workers to flag potential issues. In short, when an event gets reported, we can learn from it and prevent it from happening again.
I believe how we do our work is as important as the work we do. That approach, which has been gaining traction, will keep us on task for safely performing our work for the nation. At the end of the day we want our employees to safely return home to their families. Our commitment to safety is inseparable from our commitment to the community.
Triad National Security LLC is the contractor in charge of managing and operating Los Alamos National Laboratory. President and CEO Thom Mason does not speak on behalf of the United States government.