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Audit Smokes Out Lax Fire Protection at U.S. Nuclear Weapons Lab

Fewer than half of the fire prevention shortcomings examined at the Los Alamos National Laboratory had been fixed after previous evaluation, an Energy Department audit reports



WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

A recent audit of fire prevention measures has scorched the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the facility that created the atomic bomb during World War II and is now the home of top-level national security and radioactive material research.

The report [pdf] by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) inspector general reveals that the lab had failed to address problems pointed out three years ago in an evaluation that found at least 800 fire prevention "deficiencies". The most recent audit, conducted between December 2007 and April 2009, revealed that fewer than half of the 296 audited issues had been fixed.

The subject of fires in the area is especially sensitive after a 2000 blaze charred 43,000 acres (17,400 hectares) that included 7,700 acres (3,100 hectares) of lab property.

"Safeguarding against fires, regardless of origin, is essential to protecting employees, surrounding communities, and national security assets," wrote DoE Inspector General Gregory Friedman.

"If such a fire did occur and was not quickly suppressed," the report authors noted, "there could be a risk that hazardous or radiological material could be released." The authors assert, however, that such a release wouldn't entail "nuclear safety issues.”

A sampling of problems the audit pinpointed include: a request to replace an "unreliable" fire alarm panel in a processed plutonium facility had not been fulfilled; a kitchen hood fire suppression system, required to be tested semiannually, had not been tested in four years; and facility operators did not always have money and time earmarked for fixing outstanding issues.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the contracts for operating the facilities, disagreed with some of the audit's conclusions and attributed any negligence to managerial "weakness" of  the lab's former operator, the University of California, which had crossed 32 problems off the list despite not having rectified them. The current contract operator, Los Alamos National Security (a partnership among Bechtel Corp., Babcock & Wilcox's BWX Technologies, the University of California, and the URS Corp.'s Washington Group International), took over after the 2006 evaluation and is in charge of making sure that fire safety standards are followed. The NNSA declined to comment.

In the meantime, the lab has earmarked $4 million to help resolve any lingering problems, and in February it launched a new Fire Protection Division "to help prioritize and identify these issues—and get to work on them," says Los Alamos spokesperson Kevin Roark.

"We believe we've made considerable progress," Roark adds. Among the improvements, he notes, is the replacement of thousands of outdated sprinkler heads.

The $5.9-billion laboratory consists of some 1,800 buildings and sits on 25,600 acres (10,350 hectares) of arid New Mexico land, 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the state capital, Santa Fe.

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