DOE Inspector General Finds Five Weapons Sites Unprepared for Emergencies

* The Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General released a report recently that finds that five nuclear weapons sites nationwide are unprepared for an emergency situation. Both Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) were included.

The report concludes that these emergency preparedness failures may result in increased risks to DOE operations, employees and surrounding communities during an emergency situation, such as an accident, technological emergency or terrorist attack.

The report analyzes six areas considered critical to emergency preparedness, including an established continuity plan for essential operations, preparation of alternate facilities in case of relocation and identification of functions that must continue in case of emergency, among others. Of these criteria, only the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pennsylvania received satisfactory reviews.

The report cites several specific instances of inadequate emergency preparedness. For example, in 2002, LANL determined that it did not properly segregate contaminated victims during a mock emergency exercise. Further, Sandia failed to provide timely medical care to simulated victims in several instances.

Further, the report accuses the facilities of failing to implement corrective measures established in previous emergency preparedness reviews. In order to facilitate improvement, DOE established the Society for Effective Lessons Learned Sharing. The society developed a database in which each site is to submit lessons learned from its emergency preparedness activities so that the sites may learn from each others' experience. However, only Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State has taken advantage of the service.

LANL argues that it has taken steps to increase emergency preparedness following the Cerro Grande fire of 2000. For example, LANL used $21 million of federal fire recovery funds to build its Emergency Operations Center, which opened in 2003. In June, more than 100 representatives from LANL, DOE, Los Alamos County, surrounding tribes and state and federal law enforcement participated in a training exercise at the center.

Citizens in northern New Mexico believe that it is critical that LANL communicate more effectively with surrounding communities so that they can also prepare for emergencies at LANL. The Embudo Valley Community Monitoring Group, which has been performing independent air monitoring of the communities downwind of LANL, has scheduled tours of the Emergency Operations Center twice in order to become more informed about emergency procedures at LANL. However, due to the current stand-down of work at LANL, both tours were canceled.

Sheri Kotowski, of the group, said, "Communities need to take initiative when planning for emergencies at LANL. In order to do that, we need to make sure that our emergency planners are doing their jobs, not only in times of crisis, but also in times of calm. We need to know that they are preparing adequately outside of an emergency situation so that clear decisions can be made when emergencies happen."

The Embudo Valley Community Monitoring Group will be hosting a public forum on emergency preparedness in northern New Mexico in November. For more information, please contact CCNS at 986-1973.

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