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GAO cites 'persistent safety problem' at nuclear weapons labs

National Nuclear Security Administration disputes auditors’ characterization of management weaknesses.

Over the last seven years, nearly 60 serious accidents or near misses have occurred at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, the Government Accountability Office has reported.

Problems included the exposure of workers to radiation and other hazards, resulting in serious harm to some employees, damage to facilities, and the temporary shutdown of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories in 2004 and 2005.

The report (GAO-08-73) attributed safety lapses at the labs to staff shortages and poor oversight on the part of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency responsible for managing the two labs as well as Sandia National Laboratory.

The nuclear weapons laboratories are not regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The three NNSA weapons laboratories have experienced persistent safety problems -- including accidents and violations of nuclear safety rules designed to protect workers and the public -- stemming largely from long-standing management weaknesses," GAO reported.

All three labs conduct nuclear weapons research, highly dangerous work that involves handling radioactive and hazardous materials such as plutonium and radioactive waste. Mishandled, the material poses a significant threat to the public and the environment.

Much of the work at the labs is conducted by contractors and subcontractors who are overseen by NNSA employees who work on site. NNSA oversight personnel by and large do not have direct authority over subcontractors, GAO reported, although the agency ultimately is responsible for ensuring that the work those subcontractors perform meets safety standards.

GAO found that problems generally resulted from lax attitudes on the part of managers and employees toward safety procedures; weaknesses in accurately identifying problems; and insufficient technical and safety expertise on the part of NNSA personnel working on site. For example, positions for critical senior nuclear safety officials at both the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos site offices went unfilled for more than a year.

In a letter responding to GAO's findings, Michael Kane, associate administrator for management and administration at NNSA, said that while the agency generally agreed with GAO's facts and recommendations, the report lacked context and did not provide an accurate impression of safety.

"The facts reported in the report, if put in the context of the numbers of employees, the period of years covered and the cutting edge, high hazard work that is being performed at the laboratories, are favorably impressive," Kane said. He described the agency's oversight as "excellent."

Auditors countered that NNSA has no way to determine the effectiveness of its efforts to improve safety because the agency does not rely on outcome-based performance measures.

Also, GAO questioned a shift by NNSA to rely on contractors' own safety management controls. "Continuing safety problems, coupled with the inability to demonstrate progress in remedying weaknesses, make it unclear how this revised system will enable NNSA to maintain an appropriate level of oversight of safety performance at the weapons laboratories," the report stated.

Concern about safety and security at these laboratories has been long-standing. In recent years, Congress has held dozens of hearings on the subject. Three years ago, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which was created by Congress to provide an independent assessment of operations at the labs, recommended that federal oversight be strengthened, something GAO acknowledges NNSA has been working to do.