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Report: Los Alamos lab comes up short on emergency drills

FILE - This undated file aerial photo shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. A federal nuclear safety panel says Los Alamos National Laboratory has come up short during drills intended to show how the northern New Mexico lab would respond to potential emergencies such as radioactive leaks or earthquakes. A letter sent in October 2017 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says the board has found numerous weaknesses. Federal officials say steps are being taken to improve emergency preparedness at the lab. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)
October 29, 2017 - 10:36 AM

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - A federal nuclear safety panel says Los Alamos National Laboratory has come up short during drills intended to show how the New Mexico lab would respond to potential emergencies such as radioactive leaks or earthquakes.

A letter and lengthy report sent this month by the Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says the board found numerous weaknesses dating back to 2014.

While the board did not issue any final recommendations regarding the weaknesses, it detailed its findings in the report in hopes of helping the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration as the federal agencies address the lab's issues.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that among a long list of criticisms and findings in the report, lab crews regularly failed at establishing adequate incident command capabilities during the simulated emergencies. There was a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities, ineffective co-ordination and inadequate communication, among other things.

The exercises also showed delays in evacuations or getting emergency medical responders to those likely to be injured.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said the agency and the lab are taking steps to improve emergency preparedness and response based on the lessons learned from the past drills and exercises.

Lindsey Geisler, a spokeswoman for the nuclear agency, said in a statement that the lab has "a comprehensive emergency management program in place that is routinely tested and validated through drills and exercises, with a focus on continuous improvement."

Among the problems listed in the report were poor decisions by incident commanders during a 2016 exercise involving a simulated sulfuric acid spill that resulted in two workers taking shelter in a room next to the spill zone. That left the workers potentially overexposed to the hazardous material.

According to the report, everyone should have been moved at least 100 metres from the spill.

In another 2016 exercise, this one simulating mass casualties at one of the lab's technical areas, there were examples of a lack of focus on worker safety and a lack of co-ordination. Command and control issues led to a 90-minute delay in providing medical care for the injured.

Also, the security teams were standing unprotected in what was supposed to be a contamination plume during the exercise.

More broadly, the report says federal oversight of emergency preparedness at Los Alamos lab has not been effective. Neither the National Nuclear Security Administration nor its field office in Los Alamos completed required assessments and evaluations, according to the safety board.

Also, the board's staff observed a lack of self-criticism in the lab's critique and exercise evaluation process and weaknesses in the corrective action program that result in recurring issues.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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