.News Update 3/20/09

DOE Responds to Emergency Preparedness Concerns at LANL

March 20, 2009

Following up on the December 2008 letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board concerning the lack of safety and emergency preparedness at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the Department of Energy (DOE) replied recently, stating its progress and intentions to address the concerns. DOE also asked for a 90-day extension of time to fully respond.

The Board letter expressed concern over the lack of preparedness at LANL to deal with emergency situations, such as fire. It found that LANL had a deficiency in staffing and was failing to properly train emergency responders for the specific chemical and radiological situations encountered at LANL. The Board prescribed preparation of a Baseline Needs Assessment and laid out specific areas for DOE to address.

In their response this month, DOE seems to be making progress, but the critical Baseline Needs Assessment has not been finalized. DOE was unable to provide the Board with the Assessment, which is supposed to provide a strategy and schedule to address achieving the necessary fire and emergency capabilities. DOE did, however, report on the other areas of concern.

In a memo attached to the response, DOE outlined the immediate measures it has taken to improve the fire and emergency response capabilities. They have taken steps to provide emergency personnel with radiological training to help firefighters and other emergency teams properly respond to the additional hazards at LANL. To aid emergency responders, DOE has also begun performing facility familiarization tours and updating their fire pre-incident plans. In response to the Board's observation that understaffing creates many of the safety problems, DOE has upped the minimum number of employees working per shift.

DOE acknowledged that not all the points were completed yet and asked for a 90-day extension of time to respond following the completion of the Baseline Needs Assessment. DOE explained that they would develop a Plan of Action after the full Assessment has been completed. The Plan will aim to implement the recommendations of the Board, taking into account "lessons learned from drills and exercises, verification of drill effectiveness, and formal tracking of identified issues."

Though the overhaul of emergency practices has not been fully achieved, the response from the DOE suggests a willingness to work in the direction of better preparedness. The memo on measures taken outlines the work being done with the Los Alamos Fire Department to make sure that firefighters know how to handle emergencies in a special environment, which was a major failing point for preparedness on the part of LANL.

Activists remain concerned that while DOE is moving in the right direction, more needs to be done. Sheri Kotowski, of the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, participates in emergency preparedness activities involving LANL. In response to the DOE report, she said, "This is the good news. The bad news is that DOE has had these recommendations since before 2000. Emergency response has everything to do with being ready yesterday."

To read the DOE response, please visit https://www.hss.energy.gov/deprep/.

Back to News Index