Nations Weapons Labs Have Dire Safety Problems, GAO Says

A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointed out that nearly 60 serious accidents or near misses have occurred at the nation’s three nuclear laboratories since 2000, raising concern for worker safety.

Some of the incidents at the three plants – Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories – that occurred in the past seven years include exposure to radiation, inhalation of toxic vapors and electrical shocks.

In 2000, seven workers at a Los Alamos plutonium processing and handling facility received significant doses of radiation from plutonium released into the air from a faulty unit. In 2002, at another Los Alamos unit, two researchers present during an experiment noticed a rapid rise in the room’s temperature, and both fled the room seconds before an explosion. And in 2003, an accident at a construction site on the New Mexico campus of Sandia National Laboratories seriously injured two ironworkers.

“Although no one was killed, many of the accidents caused serious harm to workers or damage to facilities,” noted the GAO report, which reviewed nearly 100 reports. “Accidents and nuclear safety violations also contributed to the temporary shutdown of facilities at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore in 2004 and 2005. Yet safety problems persist.”

Lax Attitudes on Safety Pervasive Among Labs, GAO Says

According to the report, “lax laboratory attitudes towards safety procedures, inadequacies in identifying and addressing safety problems and inadequate oversight by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) site office” contributed to the safety issues found in the facilities.

“The NNSA weapons laboratories, which conduct important but potentially dangerous research, have experienced persistent safety problems despite years of effort to make the laboratories safer,” the report stated.

The NNSA has taken some steps to address safety weaknesses at the labs. In 1996, the agency started to reinvigorate integrated safety management, which was intended to raise safety awareness and be used as a forum for employees to identify potential safety hazards and take steps to mitigate them. In addition, the NNSA and its contractors also began developing systems to identify and track safety problems as well as come up with corrective actions.

However, because the NNSA and laboratory contractors have been unable to ensure that managers and employees are consistent in following safety policies and procedures at the workplace, the steps that have been taken were deemed “ineffective” and were contributing factors to the accidents.

NNSA Should Submit Annual Safety Report to Congress

In turn, the GAO recommended that the NNSA strengthen management and oversight of lab safety by ensuring that safety improvement initiatives be carried out in “a systemic manner, with effective performance measures based on outcomes, not process.”

In addition, GAO recommended that the agency submit an annual report to Congress that spells out its progress in improving safety at the weapons laboratories.

For the most part, the NNSA said in a response to the GAO report that it agreed with its findings, but it noted that “given the numbers of employees, the period of years covered, and the high-hazard work that is performed at these laboratories, safety at the laboratories has been impressive.”

The agency also said that its oversight of safety at the labs is “excellent.”

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