AP NEWS

Feds will seek no more penalties for LANL ‘near-miss’

January 6, 2019

The National Nuclear Security Administration says it will not seek additional financial penalties from the former management contractor of Los Alamos National Laboratory over a serious worker safety violation in 2017.

The event, described as a “near-miss” to a fatality, occurred when a worker entered a room in response to a low-oxygen alarm, a situation that could lead to asphyxiation. The incident spotlighted issues at the lab in identifying and preventing hazards, as well as problems with management and training.

At the time, the lab was managed by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium led by the University of California and Bechtel.

The consortium lost $3.1 million of its annual performance bonus money, in part due to the near-miss. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the U.S. Department of Energy’s undersecretary for nuclear security, said in a recent letter that because of that loss, additional fines for the violation would be waived.

Following a series of serious accidents at the lab, the consortium was told in late 2015 that its federal contract would end.

A new contractor, Triad National Security LLC, took over operations of the lab in November. Triad is led by the University of California, in partnership with the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Texas A&M University System.

In a letter on the near-miss dated Dec. 20, Gordon-Hagerty said the lab has resolved some safety issues, but federal officials were not convinced it would be able to prevent a similar accident in the future.

The lab’s plans to fix problems “did not fully address program deficiencies or provide a sense of confidence that issues would be resolved with enough depth to prevent recurrence of a similar event in the future,” she wrote.

Gordon-Hagerty said a fine of $139,500 for three violations would be waived because of the year’s performance bonus deductions.

The most severe violation, her letter said, was an improperly installed pressure-relief valve, which froze in the open position, creating the hazardous condition. When the low-oxygen alarm went off, the letter added, emergency procedures were incomplete.

The letter also cited LANS’ failure to adequately train workers on emergency procedures or conduct drills for the situation that occurred.

“We need to and will do better,” said Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the lab,

While no employees were in imminent danger as a result of the 2017 incident, Nerzig said, “it is also clear that well-established procedures and practices for responding to a low-oxygen alarm were not fully followed. … In the interests of their own safety, we have reminded our workers to keep safety uppermost in their minds at all times.”