DOE Cancels Lab Contract

"Saying that Brookhaven National Laboratory had broken faith with Long Islanders," Energy Secretary Federico Pena yesterday announced that the Energy Department would terminate its contract with the nonprofit organization that has run the lab for its entire 50-year history amid controversy over an underground leak of radioactive tritium (Pleven/Haberstroh, Long Island Newsday, 5/2).

The department has never before unilaterally terminated a contract under such circumstances. Pena: "I'm sending a message to Long Island -- and to our facilities nationwide -- that I will take appropriate action to rebuild trust and to make environment, safety and health a priority."

Pena took the action after Energy's Office of Environment, Safety and Health (DOE release, 5/1) gave him a report which concluded that the contractor, a consortium of 24 universities called Associated Universities Inc., placed a low priority on environmental, health and safety (EHS) measures. The report listed several examples to support its contention, "but one loomed above the rest": the lab's failure to respond adequately to tritium contamination of groundwater from the lab's main research reactor (Greenwire, 4/2) (Dan Barry, N.Y. Times, 5/2). The report also found there were "few tools to assure accountability" for EHS performance; that the "level of informality" at the lab was "inappropriate" to assure EHS protection; and that the DOE had to improve its own performance in overseeing lab operations (DOE release).

Pena said the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday would begin a "full-facility inspection" to assess compliance with environmental laws, while Assistant Energy Secretary Tara O'Toole yesterday raised the possibility that the dispute may force the permanent closing of the High Flux Beam Reactor.

Paul Martin, chairman of AUI's board of directors and dean of engineering at Harvard University, said his group was "very surprised" by Pena's action. Martin: "We think it was taken precipitously" (Pleven/Haberstroh, Long Island Newsday, 5/2). The lab's longtime director, Nicholas Samios, resigned on Wednesday (Pleven/Haberstroh, Long Island Newsday, , 5/1), and a new management team had been installed on Monday (Greenwire, 4/29).

Local officials praised the move (Pleven/Haberstroh, Long Island Newsday, 5/2).

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