More Explosions at Los Alamos

First, we learned that researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico accidentally blew up a building on December 16, 2009 with a Civil War-style cannon. But if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that staffers there have been wreaking all kinds of havoc—including three accidental explosions and the accidental electrocution of an employee.

And that’s in just the past 10 months.

A memo dated January 20, 2010, from the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Site Office, includes a lengthy list of recent safety incidents at their Technical Area facilities, noting that the “relevant recent events include but are not limited to” the list. That includes a “an energetic reaction”—geek speak for “explosion—on July 8, 2009 after a student “erroneously disposed of aceton into a sealed acid waste container.” There was a “rapid energetic reaction” in an oven last month when a researcher attempted to duplicate an experiment, but used “higher constituent concentrations and a pressure vessel instead of glassware.” And on March 20, 2009, “an employee received a 3,500 VDC shock when he inadvertently contacted the high-voltage end of a battery string from a trainer fire-set.”

The memo notes that these accidents are “strikingly similar” to a number of previous incidents at Los Alamos sites over the last eight years: two other accidental explosions in January 2002 and May 2005, a severe eye injury caused by a laser in July 2004, an incident in which a researcher accidentally sprayed acid into his eyes, and an episode where two students accidentally inhaled acid vapors while cleaning glassware in June 2005.

And there’s more. Exactly a year ago, it leaked out that at least 67 computers containing sensitive information were lost or had been stolen from the nation’s major nuclear weapons lab. Los Alamos has also been criticized in the recent past for not properly protecting nuclear materials and for using FedEx to ship a package containing deadly radioactive material.

“The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is concerned about recent safety incidents that have a programmatic or conduct-of-research nexus,” states the memo, which is signed by Joseph C. Vozella, a contracting officer representative at NNSA, and Donald L.Winchell, a manager.

“[T]he commonalities between recent and earlier events indicate that the organizational learning and the sustained focus on improvement necessary for a proactive safety culture have not been embraced across this site,” it states. “Active and aggressive management of event investigations, corrective actions, and effective reviews do not appear to be occurring.”

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on Thursday sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for the White House to urge the Department of Energy to cut funding to Los Alamos until its safety record “markedly improves.”

“This memo shows that the supposed smartest people on the planet are incapable of learning from their mistakes,” said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator with POGO. “Los Alamos will not adequately enforce safety requirements, until DOE begins to properly use its power of the purse.”

  • Kate Sheppard was a staff reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau from 2009 to 2013. She is now a senior reporter and the energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post. She can be reached by email at kate (dot) sheppard (at) huffingtonpost (dot) com and you can follow her on Twitter @kate_sheppard.

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