Federal officials will conduct an investigation into some workers’ health and safety practices at Los Alamos National Laboratory after an incident the Department of Energy is calling a “near-miss to a fatality” involving an employee this fall.

On Sept. 13, a worker entered a laboratory room that had insufficient oxygen, indicating a potential deficiency in the room’s “pressure system design.” The incident was classified as potentially life threatening to the worker, and a regulatory violation of lab building requirements and its emergency response protocol, according to a letter sent to outgoing lab Director Charles McMillan by the Department of Energy’s Office of Enforcement.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an emailed statement that, “the worker and any other workers nearby were unharmed.”

“We are cooperating fully with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Enforcement,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration also said the agency expects the lab to “cooperate fully with this investigation,” which includes an on-site inspection, interviews with personnel and a review of laboratory documents.

According to the letter, dated Dec. 6, the lab reported the incident to an internal federal reporting system five days after the event in September. The report title states the worker entered the room while a low oxygen alarm was activated.

A source said an investigation will likely show that “near fatal” is “an inaccurate characterization.”

This is the first time details of this incident have been made public. It appears to be among the most serious in a succession of worker safety accidents at the laboratory this fall and is the second time in six months the lab has faced a federal investigation.

In June, the lab unintentionally shipped plutonium out of state by aircraft; it was intended to be shipped by cargo truck. This was a violation of federal regulations, which Frank Klotz, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, called “absolutely unacceptable.” A shipping worker was fired as a result of the incident.

The Sept. 13 incident was part a series of other worker safety events that followed the June error.

In August, a worker cut a live electrical line and was sent to the hospital, pausing electrical work for several days, though officials said the worker was uninjured. A week later, workers placed an excess of plutonium metals in the same room, a condition that is prohibited by federal regulations that are meant to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction.

Later that month, 11 workers were unintentionally exposed to alpha particles while working. A second contamination event also occurred in late September — 10 days after the worker entered a room lacking sufficient oxygen.

Kim Davis Lebak, former director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Field Office, announced she would retire from federal service a day after the near-miss. Lebak was replaced by Steve Goodrum.

It is not known if the incident was related to her retirement.

Federal safety officials also have criticized the lab’s ability to handle an emergency. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent panel, wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry in October, charging that Los Alamos was inadequately prepared to handle an emergency. This was based on a July review of emergency response training, but the board said issues had been longstanding between 2011 and 2016.

In the letter from Kevin Dressman, acting director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Enforcement, to McMillan, he wrote the Sept. 13 accident “revealed potential deficiencies” in how lab managers implement the Energy Department’s “requirements for emergency management.”

The lab is currently managed by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium operated by the University of California, Bechtel National, BWXT and AECOM. LANS lost its contract in late 2015 after a series of serious management problems, including an improperly packaged waste drum that exploded and led to a costly nuclear accident in southern New Mexico. The Department of Energy originally said the current contract would expire in September 2017 but granted LANS a yearlong extension to give federal officials time to seek bids for a new contract to run the lab, which is expected to be under new management in September 2018.

McMillan announced his retirement from the lab in early September.

Final bids were submitted Monday for new management, including a bid from the University of California.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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