House panel calls out nuke officials for repeated failures

AP News
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Posted: Jun 12, 2015 4:10 PM

Members of a U.S. House panel said Friday that they are frustrated with decades of security and safety lapses at some of the laboratories, manufacturing facilities and other sites that make up the nation's nuclear complex.

The lawmakers, during a hearing in Washington, D.C., pushed top officials with the U.S. Energy Department and the National Nuclear Safety Administration for details on how the agencies plan to revamp oversight of the contractors that run the facilities.

The hearing focused on oversight failures that contributed to a 2014 radiation release that forced the indefinite closure of the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico. Investigators determined that a container of waste improperly packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured, allowing radiation to escape.

The mishap in New Mexico is just the latest in a long string of security and safety breaches. Members of the panel pointed to the disappearance of classified computer disks at Los Alamos in 2004 and the 2012 break-in at one of the nation's most secure sites by an 82-year-old nun and fellow activists.

In the most recent case, a clerical error is partly to blame for workers packing drums of waste produced from plutonium processing at Los Alamos with organic cat litter. That was despite guidance that called for an inorganic material to be used to absorb the moisture inside the containers.

"This has been a recurrent theme that comes up over and over again," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who has been on the subcommittee for more than 10 years. "It is important to get this right and get this solved. We are talking about the nation's nuclear secrets."

In the wake of the radiation mishap, National Nuclear Safety Administration and Energy Department offices have been reorganized, and Energy Department officials said they're working on bolstering their oversight team at headquarters.

Officials reiterated their commitment to making improvements, but lawmakers said they had little confidence because lessons had yet to be learned from past problems. Some described the agencies' records as alarming.

As for the nuclear repository, an Energy Department official acknowledged during the hearing that it could take several years before full operations resume and that the final price tag is unknown. Preliminary estimates have pegged the cost of resuming some operations at more than $500 million.

U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, said taxpayers are on the hook for the mistakes made at Los Alamos and the repository. Collins said he wanted to know why no one was fired.

Had something like that happened in the private sector, he said those responsible would have lost their jobs and the contractor would have been sued to recoup the cost of the damages. Collins said simply reducing the term of the contract doesn't go far enough to hold the lab manager accountable or address the systemic problems that have plagued the lab.

Collins, a businessman, said his biotechnology company works with infectious diseases and other bioterrorism materials. "We don't make mistakes because we have people in charge who know what they're doing. Clearly that can't be said for your agency," Collins said to the panel of federal officials.

The closure of the repository has delayed the cleanup of legacy waste like contaminated gloves, tools and clothing from decades of bomb-making across the nuclear complex. In its 15 years of operation, the nuclear dump received shipments from more than 20 sites as part of the Energy Department's multibillion-dollar-a-year cleanup program.