Los Alamos labs contractor settles state violation; has federal notice for more issues

New allegations from 2021 include contamination issues, flooding, improper staffing and dismissing hazardous waste protocols

By: - June 12, 2023 5:05 am

An undated photo capturing the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Labratory, with the Rio Grande valley and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the background. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory

As contractors at Los Alamos National Lab resolved allegations of mislabeling hazardous waste in 2020 after a New Mexico Environment Department inspection, federal overseers recently reported additional significant safety violations from 2021.

Triad National Security, LLC is a contractor that manages the national lab, including LANL’s plutonium weapons program. Triad is co-owned by the Battelle Memorial Institute, Texas A&M University System, and the University of California.

On May 31, Triad and New Mexico’s environment department agreed to a $20,000 settlement, after the agency alleged Triad violated state laws during a 2020 inspection.

Environment department inspectors said Triad failed to label containers of hazardous waste, universal waste batteries and free liquids. There was also a failure to provide secondary containers for free liquid hazardous waste. NMED issued a notice of violation nearly two years later in July 2022.

According to the settlement, Triad did not admit to any of the allegations, but paid the civil fine to “avoid further legal proceedings.”

Federal overseer flags 2021 safety violations

On May 25, the National Nuclear Security Administration issued a preliminary notice of violation after a series of events that occurred between February and July 2021 at LANL’s plutonium facility.

The NNSA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, is responsible for the nation’s nuclear weapons. It oversees the national laboratories production, testing and development of the stockpile.

The NNSA labeled the five safety breaches against Triad and Los Alamos labs as “Severity Level II violations” with a high safety significance.

Level II violations “represent a significant lack of attention or carelessness towards responsibilities of (Department of  Energy) contractors for the protection of public or worker safety,” according to a letter to Los Alamos labs director Thom Mason.

When asked how the public and workers can trust Triad in the wake of nuclear safety violations, a laboratory spokesman gave the following written statement.

“The Laboratory takes the incidents raised by the Department of Energy’s Office of Enterprise Assessments seriously and undertook corrective actions to address them when they occurred in 2021. We will continue to work closely with DOE EA as we prioritize the safety of our workers, the public, and the environment,” the written statement said.

An undated photo of Los Alamos National Labratory Director Thom Mason. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Labratory

Violations included an issue when fissionable materials were placed in a drop-box and violated “criticality” safety posting limits, which are to help prevent fission chain-reaction accidents.

A glovebox – which is supposed to allow people to handle dangerous materials – breached on March 3, 2021, allegedly contaminating three workers’ skin with radioactive material.

“Triad did not immediately recognize that a glove had breached and that a worker had contamination on their hands,” the federal violation notice said. “As a result, the worker spread contamination to surfaces, personal protective equipment, personal clothing and skin of some workers in the room.”

The NNSA cited staffing shortages, noting that one person was given four roles.

“With all these responsibilities and distractions, self-monitoring was not performed when the individual exited the glovebox,” the violation notice said. That allowed the contamination to spread to two other people before being detected.

On March 31, 2021 flooding occurred in a vault with fissionable materials.

NNSA said Triad failed to inform the lab’s operations center that the vault water bath required filling. During the process, Triad deviated from approved procedures by blocking open a spring-loaded valve, “bypassing its safety feature.”

“This ultimately caused water to overflow onto the vault floor because the worker was not present to close the valve,” the violation notice said.

A second flooding event on July 19, 2021 happened after work was inappropriately delegated to unqualified workers, the NNSA said. The workers did not manipulate the valves in the right sequence, and did not notify the LANL Operations Center property to respond to the alarms.

“These errors resulted in one of the valves being misaligned, allowing water to inadvertently enter the ventilation system,” the violation notice said.

The flooding included glovebox ventilations systems and a glovebox containing fissionable material. Triad issued a memo two years before cautioning that misaligned valves could flood the ventilation systems, NNSA noted in the letter.

NNSA said both flooding incidents shared a problem of insufficient staff to complete facility rounds.

The violations totaled more than half a million dollars, $571,187 to be exact. However, NNSA withheld $1.4 million from the Triad contract “in part for deficiencies related to the events,” the agency said it would not seek further civil penalty for the violations.

Triad is required to submit a written reply, which can contest the violations.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

MORE FROM AUTHOR