Monday, February 26, 2007
Associated Press, Monday, February 26, 2007
Subcontractors for Los Alamos National Laboratory did not follow lab safety procedures before a construction accident last year that injured two lab workers, an internal lab investigation found.
The June 28 accident could have been prevented, but lab officials failed to correct unsafe working conditions, did not effectively enforce safety requirements and failed to consider the history of one of its subcontractors, Magnum Steel Constructors, the report said.
In 2003, a Magnum worker died in a work-related accident in Bernalillo, and the company was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for six serious violations, investigators said.
Magnum workers were using a crane to move a 1,500-pound metal staircase at the lab's Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility last summer when the structure slipped from its rigging, fell more than 50 feet and struck two men.
One of the workers received leg injuries and the other suffered multiple leg fractures and a broken pelvis, the report says.
Representatives with Magnum and Pace Iron Works - a lab subcontractor that hired Magnum to help on the project - said Friday they hadn't seen the report but insisted the accident was unavoidable.
"They worked like they normally work at a job site, as far as I'm concerned," said Shaun Myers, a quality control officer with Pace. "Nobody wants to get hurt. They deal with steel all day long. They don't want to do it in an unsafe manner."
Investigators, however, found that a "poor rigging technique" was directly responsible for the accident, which "very easily could have resulted in two fatalities."
In the past, federal oversight officials in the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration have investigated serious lab accidents.
But NNSA, which is giving more oversight responsibilities to the lab's new corporate manager, opted last summer to let the lab take the lead on last summer's investigation.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said the report should demonstrate that the lab's internal investigations are as rigorous, if not more so, than the government's.
"We're harder on ourselves than the DOE is," Roark said.
Is that so Roark? Well, that's not saying much. Government ain't exactly a model of excellence. Kind of like saying the mob is better at instilling discipline than the judicial system. So we're supposed to be impressed?
UC hit with huge fine for nuclear safety lab violations
By Ian Hoffman
Federal nuclear-safety regulators have slapped the University of California with a $1.1 million penalty, the largest ever assessed, for a pattern of recurring nuclear safety violations at Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab that put workers at risk and scattered radioactivity across two states.
A lengthy and scathing letter from the National Nuclear Security Administration to the university said the only reason workers did not inhale more radioactive substances or spread them to more places was mere "good fortune'' and suggested the agency wanted to impose more than twice the fine.
The university never will have to pay the fines because 15 safety violations date to 2005, a time when UC ran the New Mexico-based Los Alamos as a nonprofit and was classified by Congress as exempt from paying civil penalties for safety violations.
Those days are over at Los Alamos now, since management was handed last year to a new, private team of corporations in addition to the university. In the future, the acting chief of the NNSA warned Los Alamos executives, the lab will be fined.
Even though the university won't pay a dollar in penalty, the timing of the violations notice hardly could be worse for the university. The UC-led team that now manages Los Alamos is competing with the nation's third largest defense contractor, Northrop Grumman, to operate its sister weapons research facility in the Bay Area, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
The record fine is for a series of events and inspections in 2005 that exposed a haphazard safety culture inside Los Alamos even as university officials were assuring Congress that great improvements had been made in lab safety.
The violations notice makes clear that lab employees flouted federal rules requiring one or more layers of safety reviews before handling radioactive substances, replacing critical equipment inside the lab's plutonium facility or decontaminating a radioactive sewage plant.
The lab failed to hire enough radiation safety technicians and when the rules called for those technicians to check for contamination, lab workers decided to push ahead regardless and ended up inhaling radioactive substances or tracking them off lab property, into vehicles, homes and out of state.
In some cases, the federal nuclear agency suggested that the birthplace of the bomb often attempted to perform work involving radioactive substances without a "subject matter expert'' available. In other words, employees didn't know what they were doing.
In the past, university and Los Alamos officials have persuaded federal regulators to write off some safety violations or reduce the fines assessed when the lab has tried fixing at least some of the underlying problems.
Acting NNSA administrator Thomas D'Agostino denied these requests because many of the safety failings were rooted in the same problems that the university never corrected when it was cited, without paying a fine, in the 1990s, as well as 2003 and 2004.
"NNSA does not find it appropriate to provide mitigation for corrective actions when significant safety events continue to occur as a result of unresolved issues,'' D'Agostino wrote last week.
"(We) hope to see improved performance on the part of the university with its participation in the new contract,'' he wrote.
Los Alamos National Laboratory announced Monday the completion of several improvements at its Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility Upgrades at Technical Area-50.
The refurbishments included the following:
# Replacement of a 2,500-gallon caustic waste holding tank in November;
# Replacement of a failing retaining wall in November; and
# Installation and switch-over to new underground waste lines last week.
Additionally, radioactive contamination from historic operations was removed from a number of areas on the plant, and new and updated safety procedures were adopted.
The laboratory's announcement said the RLWTF is expected to treat quantities of waste that will be produced in the lab's Plutonium Processing Facility. In the next year this will include about 2,000 gallons of high-level radioactive acid waste and 4,500 gallons of high-level radioactive caustic waste.
Residual solid high-level waste is disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.