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Government-Owned Nuclear Facility Challenged on Gross Safety Lapses

February 09, 2005
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(Washington, DC) – A government watchdog group has called for immediate independent investigations into evidence provided by a whistleblower showing that the nuclear facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are too unsafe to operate.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) has made public allegations made by Quality Assurance Auditor named Donald W. Brown at the Los Alamos lab showing a complete and total breakdown of the quality systems required by law to protect public health and safety from the effects of a nuclear accident.  

The Department of Energy owns the Los Alamos facilities.  In a February 3 letter to the newly-appointed Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman, GAP Nuclear Oversight Director Tom Carpenter cited numerous safety breakdowns and retaliation against auditors who attempted to report such concerns, including contractor Don Brown.

"For years, Los Alamos officials have systemically disregarded critical safety protocols.  This malfeasance and neglect of duty places the public at unnecessary risk of exposure to radiation and chemicals from a nuclear accident," stated Carpenter, adding, "Some who have attempted to bring forth problems have been threatened with physical harm, demoted, and run off the site."

The Department of Energy hires the University of California to run Los Alamos' 26 nuclear  facilities.  These facilities include plutonium and tritium processing plants, depleted uranium and explosive test facilities, metal production and fabrication sites, and various laser and high explosives buildings.

Don Brown, as a Lead Quality Assurance (QA) Auditor for a Los Alamos subcontractor, discovered and documented a total breakdown in the QA program at LANL.  The QA program is a critical system designed to ensure that the nuclear facilities are built and operated in accordance with legally-required procedures designed to protect public safety and health. 

Don Brown stated, "The Laboratory provided a great service to this country but it has acted as if it were above the law, above codes and standards intended to regulate safe operations.  The current management practices of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, if uncorrected, place the public to undue risk with potential catastrophic consequences."

Among Don Brown's findings:

  • Because of the Quality Assurance breakdown, Los Alamos has failed to assure the adequacy or integrity of the plutonium "pit," the core of the nuclear weapon.  The Weapons Physics group at Los Alamos has successfully resisted any audit whatsoever to assure that the weapons they design and build will perform as designed. 
  • The Lab maintains over 20 "off the books" warehouses full of equipment and supplies, collectively dubbed "Graceland".  None of the material in these warehouses is bar-coded, or entered into any system of accountability at the Lab.  Brown discovered that these warehouses serve as a supply depot for nuclear operations at the Lab, which he considers a gross violation of applicable law and quality assurance requirements.  This practice also represents a Homeland Security vulnerability (counterfeit equipment).
  • None of the critical welding performed in Los Alamos' nuclear facilities has been subjected to a qualified quality assurance program.  A visual inspection of over 2,000 welds in the Chemical Metallurgical Research building revealed over 1,200 defective welds.  The Lab has had small radiological releases in the past due to weld failures. 
  • Quality assurance inspectors have been physically threatened with harm and run off and, in one case, an audit of the Weapons group was rewritten after the inspector refused to change the findings in a manner that would have soft-pedaled the findings. 
  • With regard to structural concrete, Los Alamos' nuclear facilities do not, and have never, followed code requirements, resulting in unacceptable structural deficiencies.
A failure of equipment, a weld, or a violation of procedure could have disastrous consequences in any nuclear process.  A May 2004 Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board report to the Secretary of Energy spelled out the consequences of a postulated accident from just one of Los Alamos' facilities, citing potential doses of radiation far in excess of the acknowledged lethal doses.
 
Mr. Brown has brought up his detailed concerns repeatedly with his own management and DOE, in written communications and e-mails.  The result of his bringing up these concerns was to be informed that his job was being "reorganized" and that he would have to apply to keep it.  He was not selected for an interview, and has been told that he is expected to resign. On January 14, 2005, GAP filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor on behalf of Don Brown.
 
In late January 2005, the DOE announced that it was penalizing the contractor, UC, $5.1 million of the potential bonus that UC could have earned out of a possible $8 million, citing security and management concerns – the largest penalty ever levied against a contractor.  The Department of Energy has put the Los Alamos operating contract up for bid.
 
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