Reading Room

Saturday, December 24, 2005  
Contractor faulted for accidents at lab

By: Keay Davidson, Science Writer
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/12/24/BAG8TGCQ7A1.DTL

LIVERMORE

U.S. blames workers' contamination on sloppy procedures





Sloppy work practices involving deadly radioactive plutonium stored at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory compounded a series of accidents last year that contaminated employees, U.S. Department of Energy investigators say in a report.

As a result, the three contract employees who were contaminated might face a lifetime of special medical scrutiny, acknowledged a spokesman for the contractor, which the Energy Department has fined for the contamination incidents.

Among multiple violations cited by the Energy Department were workers who blithely continued working with plutonium while emergency alarms blared around them, warning of a possible contaminant hazard.

The report also cites workers who unsuspectingly brushed plutonium particles off cutting tools, causing the radioactive particles to become airborne, where they were inhaled or ingested by three unidentified workers.

The medical status of the workers was unavailable Friday. But a spokesman for the contractor responsible for the accidents says he believes that they're fine and that their exposure was low enough to make health problems unlikely.

Their exposure to plutonium radioactivity was "about one-tenth of what they're legally allowed to get as a nuclear worker," spokesman Jack Herrmann of Washington Group International said Friday. He added, "We're determined to make sure it doesn't happen again. We've improved our procedures."

The affected workers were employees of Livermore contractor Washington TRU Solutions, a firm owned by Washington Group International and hired to dispose of the lab's radioactive waste.

On Thursday, Energy Department officials announced they were slapping Washington TRU with a $192,500 fine for the violations that led to and compounded the accidents, which occurred between April and August 2004. Herrmann said the firm would not contest the fine.

Washington Group is one of the four main partners of a consortium led by UC and Bechtel that, under the leadership of outgoing Livermore director Mike Anastasio, was named by the Energy Department on Wednesday to take over Livermore's sister nuclear weapons lab, Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico next year.

The violations cited by the Energy Department during last year's mishaps occurred while Washington TRU operated a mobile plutonium packaging and shipment facility at Livermore from April to August 2004. The company is assigned to package and transport radioactive waste from the Lawrence Livermore lab to a salt mine in New Mexico for disposal.

Included in the Energy Department report is a Dec. 22 Energy Department memo by investigator Stephen M. Sohinki. He charges Washington TRU with having a "less than adequate level of understanding" of what it takes to design and operate the kind of mobile laboratory in which the accidents occurred at Livermore.

The mobile facility contains a "glove box"-type apparatus in which workers who are sealed in protective clothes handle radioactive materials while manipulating glove-shaped flexible tubes and mechanical arms. The contractor is used by the Energy Department at other facilities as well.

"Particularly troublesome," Sohinki noted in the memo, was Washington TRU's "lack of proactive response ... towards identifying and correcting quality problems" in the facility at Livermore.

Rules required that the mobile facility's ventilation system be blowing air with a certain level of intensity while plutonium operations were underway. If they weren't, an alarm would automatically sound. The alarm "frequently sounded during operations," the Energy Department report says, yet "the workers failed to stop work and take appropriate actions to investigate this recurring condition."

Susan Houghton, spokeswoman for Lawrence Livermore lab, declined to discuss the case in detail, stating that it strictly involved the contractor and its employees. The lab was not responsible for the incidents in any way, she said late Thursday. However, the Energy Department report says lab inspectors did investigate the contamination cases.

News of the plutonium incidents drew a strong reaction from Marylia Kelley, head of a Livermore-based anti-nuclear group, Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment. In an e-mail, she said the Energy Department report seemed to indicate that the Washington TRU workers "cut some amazingly dangerous corners."

"To ignore a whole series of 'abnormal events,' including high levels of contamination found on equipment workers used outside the glove box area (is) outrageous," she said.

E-mail Keay Davidson at kdavidson@sfchronicle.com.




This site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Back to TVC in the news...