Federal report: LANL has deficiencies in fire safety systems

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Jul. 27—A federal report identified deficiencies in Los Alamos National Laboratory's water-pumping system for dousing fires in the technical area that includes the plutonium facility.

Faulty designs, improper oversight of higher-risk activities, not taking corrective actions quickly enough and failing to ensure fire pumps can work properly with backup power were among the criticisms in the July report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Enterprise Assessments.

The findings point to the latest fire safety problems the lab has been grappling with for more than a decade.

Lab officials declined to address specific deficiencies outlined in the report but indicated they viewed the critique as useful in identifying problems.

"As an organization committed to continuous improvement, we welcome constructive criticism and use it to better the laboratory's operations," lab spokeswoman Laura Ann Mullane wrote in an email. "An independent review helps us to identify weak points we may not have identified and address them. We will examine the findings in the report and develop corrective actions as appropriate."

The report also commended the best practices the lab carries out effectively, Mullane added.

A lab critic said fire safety is crucial as the plutonium facility, known as PF-4, gears up to produce nuclear warhead triggers, yet the lab struggles to get a handle on the issues.

"Fire suppression is an important part of the overall safety profile," said Greg Mello, executive director of nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. "What we see at PF-4 ... is that the problems go on year after year, and that the solutions get delayed."

The question is whether the various problems will be resolved by 2026, when the lab is scheduled to make 30 plutonium triggers, or pits, per year, and will other problems crop up, Mello said.

"There's so much to fix — it's daunting," he said.

The report emphasized deficiencies "warrant a high level of attention from management."

Deficiencies listed include:

—Problems in the systems often aren't identified adequately.

—Annual tests did not verify the fire pumps can perform at full strength with alternative power for at least two minutes. The pumps are required to be available during the loss of normal power and operate at peak horsepower.

—Too many corrective actions aren't done in a timely manner.

—There are lapses in tracking equipment failures because employees are not properly recording the failures or the causes in computer systems

—Design documents showed incorrect results due to the technicians failing to use sound engineering principles. There also were inaccuracies caused by missing or outdated design information.

—Some spare parts are misidentified, which could "adversely impact safety system performance.

—Training needs to be improved and become more consistent.

—The lab does not follow all requirements to carry out an effective oversight program in line with the activities' level of risk.

Mello said the most serious problem the report cites is flawed design.

In an email, Mullane wrote that pinpointing and fixing problems is a continuing effort.

"When an issue is identified within a complex system, developing a solution requires a careful examination of the contributing causes," Mullane wrote.

From there, the lab develops corrective actions, which can take time, she added.

The lab has "internal mechanisms" to track progress in solving problems, Mullane wrote. The lab isn't required to submit a progress report to its parent agencies, but regulators have access to the information and can ask questions, she said.

The lab has a history of fire safety lapses.

In 2019, an Energy Department report outlined fire-protection issues among the challenges that have dogged the lab for more than a decade.

That same year, a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report described a fire pump breaking down and noted it was the second time in a year a pump had gone down.

Mello contends the lab should not consider ramping up pit production until all its fire system defects are straightened out. Delays in fixing safety issues must end, he said.

"The danger is production deadlines get in the way of safety deadlines," Mello said.