July 13, 2017

Nuclear watchdogs skeptical of Los Alamos Lab safety

Larry Lamsa

Los Alamos National Labs Flickr cc

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Los Alamos National Laboratory says firing workers and putting stricter controls in place are only the first steps it’s taking to protect the public as it prepares to accelerate production of a key plutonium component for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The Los Alamos lab has been under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Energy for repeated violations of safety protocols, including mishandling of plutonium and nuclear waste. Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said this week’s announcement of some firings and new rules shows accountability, but more internal reform is needed.

“No, we won’t be satisfied, because the underlying structural problems that lead to so many management mistakes are not even close to being fixed,” Mello said.

The Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration have already started a bidding process for new management to oversee the Los Alamos facility, but they insist the repeated violations have nothing to do with seeking the new contract.

The lapse in safety protocol comes a month after the Los Alamos lab mislabeled hazardous liquid that was shipped to a disposal facility in Colorado. Mello said the airplane shipment of radioactive material from New Mexico to California could have been a public health and safety disaster. His group contends the types and numbers of mistakes should concern New Mexico residents.

“This is not just a little package,” he said. “It’s not a brown package coming UPS to your door.”

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico is where the atomic bomb was secretly developed during World War II.