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Leaked Docs: Los Alamos Safety Foibles Result in Largest Estimated Fine Ever

September 12, 2006 

 

Los Alamos National Laboratory will be exempted from a $1.1 million fine by the Department of Energy (DOE), which would have been “the largest civil penalty ever” issued under its nuclear enforcement program, according to documents disclosed on the web today by the Project On Government Oversight. Los Alamos will not pay the fine since University of California , as a nonprofit, is exempt from having to pay. However, the Lab will pay fines for future violations since Bechtel, a for-profit contractor, has joined the Lab’s management team.

The penalty comes on the heels of news that DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is handing over safety oversight to Los Alamos Lab – so that it now oversees itself. After this new policy went into effect, NNSA for the first time allowed the Lab to investigate itself after an August incident where two workers were seriously injured in a crane accident which dropped a steel staircase on them. Currently, there is no federal oversight of non-nuclear safety at Los Alamos . On August 15, 2006, POGO wrote to DOE Secretary Bodman expressing concerns about the lack of safety oversight over Los Alamos .

The decision by NNSA to waive oversight over the Lab is inexplicable given that University of California has had an atrocious track record on safety, and given that incoming Lab partner Bechtel botched the Big Dig project in large part because of inadequate oversight from state and federal agencies.  NNSA officials told POGO that Headquarters NNSA initiated the self-policing pilot program at Los Alamos because they decided not to put resources into staffing federal safety oversight at the sites.  It now appears the only federal safety oversight will be performed by the newly created Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) at DOE Headquarters.

The $1.1 million waived fine is the result of a series of events in 2005 which made the national news headlines including an event where a contaminated worker spread deadly Americium-241 to four states and workers inhaled hazardous chemical fumes. While these incidents were investigated by the NNSA, such instances will no longer be investigated by them in the future. The fine is also the result of findings of an independent November 2005 inspection by the DOE’s Office of Security and Safety Performance (which has been renamed HSS).

In May 2006, Los Alamos safety official Christopher Steele was taken out of his job and appointed to a new position where he was to conduct safety training nationally. The move effectively resulted in the demise of an important level of safety oversight over a facility which has had one of the worst track records in the nuclear weapons complex in recent years. Mr. Steele had previously been retaliated against by DOE for his whistleblowing.

Shortly after Mr. Steele was reassigned, a former LANL employee filed a lawsuit alleging that “she was forced to resign from the lab in January because she refused to keep quiet about a work accident that damaged her lungs” .

In March 2006, a physician similarly sued the Lab “alleging that he was wrongfully fired from the lab after raising concerns about inadequate safety procedures and the storage of toxic chemicals”.

Then-Los Alamos Lab Director Pete Nanos shut down the Lab from July 2004 to February 2005, following a laser accident which resulted in an injury to a lab intern’s eye and the loss of two classified computer disks. During the shut down, Los Alamos staff were to review and improve safety and security policies and practices. The shut down lasted many months, and was estimated to cost at least $370 million by the Department of Energy, although POGO estimates that the true cost is $500 million to $1 billion. Despite the shut down, little improvement in safety followed.

Since 1996, Los Alamos National Laboratory has escaped paying more than $3.4 million in fines for safety violations (see Enforcement Actions for Safety Violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory 1996-2006). POGO has urged the Congress and the Department of Energy to change the rules so that nonprofit contractors are required to pay the same fines which for-profit companies must pay.

Documents released by POGO today include (click on links to view pdf files):

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

POGO Letter to DOE Secretary Bodman concerning safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 15, 2006.

POGO Slams Decision Not to Investigate Recent Accident at LANL, August 3, 2006.

Los Alamos Workers Exposed to Hazardous Chemical Fumes, August 10, 2005.

Radioactive Package Shipped FedEx to Pennsylvania , August 8, 2005.

POGO Letter to DOE Secretary Abraham concerning Los Alamos contract, November 30, 2004. POGO urged DOE to cut the Los Alamos performance award fee in part due to the escalation in safety problems at the Laboratory. DOE subsequently cut the performance fee by 70%.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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