Energy Dept. Cites University of Chicago for Nuclear Safety Violations

The Department of Energy yesterday issued a preliminary notice of violation to the University of Chicago for nuclear safety violations at DOE's Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

A series of reviews and inspections identified breakdowns in the university's quality improvement, radiation protection, work process and independent and management assessment programs, according to DOE. The university is the management and operator contractor for the laboratory, which is one of DOE's largest research centers.

Prior to 2005, senior contractor management at Argonne failed to adequately comply with DOE's nuclear safety regulations that govern these programs, the agency said.

DOE's investigation found that these issues have existed for a number of years, and, according to the agency, the university's efforts to correct these problems were largely ineffective.

DOE: Lab Lucky to Have No Significant Radiation Exposures

DOE said the deficiencies it has identified have not caused significant radiation exposures or other nuclear safety incidents.

However, DOE noted in a letter to the laboratory that it was simply fortuitous that no harm had occurred to laboratory staff, given the breadth and duration of the identified violations.

Last year, the university appointed a new management team at Argonne and has given the new lab director the resources and support necessary to upgrade the nuclear safety program, according to DOE. The new director already has begun to take corrective actions and initiated others to address other problems, including the implementation of a new safety program infrastructure.

$550,000 Fine Waived by Statute

The preliminary notice of violation includes a proposed civil penalty of $550,000 for the identified violations, although the penalty is waived by statute for the university.

DOE indicated in its letter to the director of Argonne that while the enforcement action normally would have been much more severe given the number and duration of the violations, enforcement discretion was being exercised in recognition of the significant corrective actions already taken by the director and the new management team.

A call placed to the University of Chicago seeking comment was not immediately returned.

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