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Editorial: LANL safety flaws should be addressed with alacrity

What is going on – or isn’t – at Los Alamos National Laboratory?

That’s the gut reaction to a new government report that slams the nuclear weapons lab for its lack of nuclear safety compliance.

Certainly science and nuclear defense work is being done. After all, that’s what the lab is supposed to do.

But at what risks to workers, the public and the nation?

Reports of bureaucratic red tape, project delays, budget overruns and outright incompetence are nothing new for the northern New Mexico lab (a worker writing down “organic” kitty litter instead of “inorganic” litter leading to a radiation release and the indefinite shutdown of WIPP, the nation’s only nuclear waste repository, immediately comes to mind).

But a safety audit by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General lays out serious ongoing issues the lab seems to be taking way too long – in some cases years – to address.

Among damning points the July 16 audit notes are:

n Delays in bringing the lab’s plutonium facility that produces nuclear triggers and its tritium processing facility up to required safety standards. This is hampering the National Nuclear Security Administration’s mission of maintaining the reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

n Continuing problems in fully implementing critical nuclear safety management requirements. Until it does better, there is only “limited assurance that safety risks associated with nuclear facility operations are effectively mitigated for the safety of workers, the public, and the environment.”

n Delays in updating safety procedures and documents, resolving significant safety deficiencies and not completing corrective actions called for in prior audits. For example, at the plutonium facility – partially closed due to safety infractions – safety revisions have been underway for six years. Problems involved “noncompliance with established criticality safety controls to prevent fissile materials, such as plutonium, from causing a nuclear chain reaction.”

Whoa! One would think that would be at the very top of the lab’s compliance to-do list.

n Safety revisions at the tritium facility, where processing has been suspended since 2011, have been ongoing for seven years. One persistent problem involves a system to detect elevated oxygen levels in tritium processing to prevent combustion.

From fiscal years 2010 through 2013, expenditures for safety analysis and controls on the tritium facility were $17 million and $9.9 million for the plutonium facility. Despite that influx of federal dollars, the lab had not “resolved significant and long-standing nuclear safety deficiencies” to restart the two facilities. The report does not address what’s been spent for the past two fiscal years.

The report gives LANL credit for making progress in some safety areas, and a DOE response accompanying the audit notes the lab’s contract operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC, has made management changes “to affect a culture change that is needed to address systemic weaknesses.”

Good to know, because LANL’s culture has needed a makeover for years.

U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for what appears to be lackadaisical efforts to get up to full speed in fulfilling the lab’s national security mission.

With daily terrorist threats and a growing global political powder keg, the U.S. needs to know its nuclear arsenal is up to snuff as a key deterrent to those who would harm us.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.