.News Update 12/19/08

DNFSB Report Shows Emergency Response Lacking at LANL

December 19, 2008

In a recent letter to the Department of Energy (DOE), the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board expressed concern over the lack of preparedness at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to deal with emergency situations at its unique nuclear weapons facilities. www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/lanl/sir_20081208_la.pdf. In an attached report, the Board described weaknesses in fire protection capabilities at LANL, as well as a lack of any measures being taken to deal with this situation or a formal plan to address the stated needs. Much of the lacking capability was attributed to staffing shortages and the fact that LANL failed to implement changes suggested by previous recommendations made in 1995 and 2004.

Federal regulations and DOE directives require that facilities such as LANL have "access to qualified, trained fire protection staff that includes fire protection engineers, technicians, and fire fighting personnel." The Board report, however, found LANL to be severely lacking in these areas.

The Los Alamos County Fire Department serves as a first responder to LANL emergencies. During practice drills observed by the Board and included in the report, Los Alamos County firefighting personnel were clearly unprepared for dealing with LANL-specific issues, such as the presence of contamination and harmful chemicals.

In a July 2007 drill, Los Alamos County Fire Department staff were unable to properly administer first aid to a contaminated man because of a lack of understanding of the extent of the hazard and of the proper way to go about dealing with such contamination. The main issues with fire response seem to stem from a lack of communication between LANL and the fire department about how to deal with contamination and limiting the spread of contaminants while fighting a fire. With fire hoses in use and firefighters going in and out of possibly contaminated buildings, there are many opportunities for contamination to spread during a fire.

Further, LANL at present only employs six engineers in its Fire Protection Group, which was intended to include ten engineer positions. This staff shortage has proven to be an impediment to proper safety planning.

The Board recommended that LANL do several things in order to remedy the lack of emergency response capabilities. First, the staffing problem would need to be addressed by hiring 45 people per shift, up from the current 28 per shift. LANL would also need to develop a protocol for dealing properly with contamination victims, ensure the accuracy of hazard information in their pre-fire plans for possible emergencies and hold firefighter familiarization walkthroughs in order for the fire department to be properly acquainted with the buildings and situations at a frequency of no less than twice a year.

LANL has initiated an update of the 2004 Baseline Needs Assessment for completion this month. It will focus on requirements for emergency response, including how to fight fires in contaminated areas and how to limit the spread of chemicals and contaminants while dealing with fires or other emergencies.

The Board stressed that LANL must take measures to bring their emergency response capabilities up to par. The lack of proper preparedness adversely affects workers in case of a fire, but also could have adverse effects on those living in the surrounding areas. The spread of contaminants by fire or even by the water used to put out the fire is a serious concern, especially if firefighters are not properly informed about the hazards involved in possible fires in the nuclear facilities.

DOE safety requirements mandate that LANL is capable of addressing emergencies such that the response measures are in place in order to protect workers, surrounding communities, the environment and national security.

The Board asked DOE to respond within 90 days.

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