DOE Inspector General Finds Continuing Problems with LANL Fire Protection

September 25, 2009

The Inspector General of the Department of Energy (DOE) recently released an inspection report about the problems with fire protection at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), a facility with "unique" hazards. This is the second report since June, indicating a heightened awareness of the problems that have been documented for over a decade by the Inspector General, as well as the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The Inspector General cited the outstanding recommendations that have not been addressed in the 1995 and 2004 Baseline Needs Assessments, which include staffing, training and the need for pre-fire plans for facilities that handle hazardous chemicals, explosives and radioactive materials. Some of the issues were resolved on September 30, 2008 when the Los Alamos County and the National Nuclear Security Administration signed a Cooperative Agreement for fire protection services, after 11 years of negotiations and temporary contracts. But many of the issues will not be addressed until 2010. The Inspector General said, "... the challenges facing [the National Nuclear Security Administration], LANL, and the County are significant, especially given the history of failed attempts to secure the appropriate level of fire suppression services for LANL. We believe that the recent initiatives taken by the [National Nuclear Security Administration] under the Cooperative Agreement are good first steps, but additional actions are needed."

Kevin Roark, LANL spokesman, said, "We have every confidence that the county firefighters have the required information and access authorities to deal with a fire situation at any of our radiological facilities."

Yet on June 8, 2009, Los Alamos County firefighters could not respond to two smoke alarms at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Complex, a radiological facility, after normal business hours because the gate was closed. The badge reader did not read the firefighters' badges and the override key could not be found. After about 10 minutes, the firefighters gained access. The DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security reported, "This event involves several issues including emergency responder access, communication between several LANL functions, and equipment control/management. It was learned that emergency personnel were not added to the authorized users' list for the badge readers after the method of access was changed a month earlier." Sheri Kotowski, Lead Organizer for the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, has been monitoring emergency preparedness and has participated in the extensive negotiations about the draft New Mexico Environment Department hazardous waste permit for LANL. She said that the DOE Inspector General and other federal oversight agencies do not have enforcement powers so that they cannot require LANL to rectify the on-going deficiencies. However, the New Mexico Environment Department does. Kotowski said, "In permits issued by the Environment Department, there are enforcement mechanisms so that the deficiencies must be corrected to ensure that the facilities are in compliance. In the case of the hazardous waste permit, the Environment Department needs to step up and use their enforcement powers to keep the public protected."

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