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UC is cited for safety lapses at Los Alamos

February 27, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The Department of Energy on Monday cited the University of California for 15 violations of safety rules in 2005 involving nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Laboratory, including a case of mishandled materials where low levels of radiation were spread across several states.

The violations would have carried a $1.1-million fine, but federal law waves such penalties for certain nonprofit contractors. UC's contract to run Los Alamos expired last year, but it is the lead contractor in a consortium that operates the lab.

It is the largest number of violations in UC's history of running Los Alamos. The fine, even though it won't have to be paid, ranks as the largest civil penalty in the history of the Department of Energy's nuclear safety program, the agency said.

The action is a preliminary notice. UC will have a chance to respond.

A spokesman for the lab declined to comment. UC officials were not available.

A history of security and safety breaches led the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, to put the Los Alamos contract up for competition last year, leading to the consortium arrangement.

But the lab, which dates to the Manhattan Project in World War II, continues to land in the center of controversy.

Its poor performance was the subject of two investigative hearings in the House last month, prompting calls by lawmakers to transfer some of Los Alamos' research to other labs.

Tom D'Agostino, acting chief of the NNSA, said in a notice to UC that the "large number of violations" reflected continuing "performance deficiencies over the last few years."

Five of the 15 violations were classified as Level 1, the most serious.

Department of Energy officials said they tried to let the lab correct some of its problems after a March 2005 violation, when several workers were exposed to radioactive materials while performing decontamination operations.

Another serious breakdown occurred in July 2005, the department said, when employees improperly handled radioactive americium and contaminated their work areas, homes and buildings in other states.

Special crews were dispatched to contain the radioactive contamination, which the Department of Energy said was below its limits. The violation notice said the lab management was putting emphasis on "mission accomplishment to the detriment of safety."

The other violations cited by the department involved improper safety procedures, training and record keeping on a wide range of issues, including combustible and radioactive materials.

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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