NNSA Fines LANL for Critical Safety Violations

* The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) issued a report recently citing Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) with seven critical safety violations that may impact worker or public safety. NNSA proposed issuing LANL a $770,000 fine as a result of these violations.

In the report, NNSA cited a 2003 incident in which two LANL employees were exposed to dangerous levels of plutonium due to leaking storage containers. NNSA also cited LANL for improper packaging of radioactive materials, container maintenance and failure to properly secure containers against seismic activity, among other things.

However, the fine cannot be collected because LANL is managed by the University of California, which is a non-profit entity. Federal regulations exempt all non-profit managers from fines..

NNSA also mentioned another 2003 incident that exposed five LANL employees to toxic vapors. NNSA did not include this incident in the fine because, "no radiological consequences occurred.".

LANL must respond to the report within 30 days. However, Linton Brooks, NNSA administrator, said, "with respect to the factual accuracy of [the report], LANL management indicated that they had no substantive disagreement...."

Brooks also said, "I cannot continue to mitigate enforcement citations when significant safety events continue to occur, and particularly when, once again, only good fortune prevented these exposures from being much higher."

The report comes at a time when both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are taking steps to strengthen worker compensation programs under the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.

The act provides workers who have been made ill by their work at nuclear weapons facilities a $150,000 lump sum payment as compensation, provided that the illness is proven to have been caused by their work.

Of the nearly 25,000 claims filed under the act, 95% have yet to be processed by the Department of Energy (DOE). The Senate has amended the two-pronged approach that was established in the act. Currently, the Department of Labor processes claims filed by those made ill by radiation, beryllium or silica. DOE processes claims filed by workers exposed to toxic substances.

The Senate has consolidated both processes into the Department of Labor, which has proven more efficient in reviewing claims. Both New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici supported the amendment.

The House approved to provide more funding to process the claims and establish permanent positions for physicians to review medical records. The House did not, however, support the Senate's proposal to consolidate the compensation program into the Department of Labor.

Both New Mexico Representatives Tom Udall and Heather Wilson supported the consolidation, arguing that those made ill from their work at LANL and other DOE sites are dying as DOE stalls the compensation program.

Representative Udall said, "...After three and a half years, less than three percent of the cases filed with the [DOE] have been processed. This means that the vast majority of the men and women who have filed claims through this program - many of whom will die before they ever see a compensation check - are being denied justice."

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