Federal officials say Los Alamos National Laboratory failed to keep track of a toxic metal, potentially exposing an unknown number of workers to serious health consequences.
The failure to adequately track beryllium — a substance used in nuclear weapons production and of which small amounts can cause lung disease and cancer — violates federal regulations put in place to prevent worker overexposure, according to a report released this week by the Energy Department’s inspector general.
The report found long-standing issues in the lab’s record keeping surrounding the Department of Energy’s Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program. The lab did not keep an adequate inventory of the amount of beryllium on-site and could not assure contaminated areas were safe before allowing work to continue.
Beryllium is used in the production of a variety of items, from cellphones to nuclear weapons. A lightweight, silvery metal, its strength and ability to hold high temperatures are valued by manufacturers. But when inhaled, even small quantities of the fine dust can settle into the lungs — scarring tissue and potentially leading to chronic beryllium disease and lung cancer.
The disease manifests in a persistent cough and shortness of breath. The latency period for chronic beryllium disease can occur soon after exposure or more than a decade later, according to the Cleveland Clinic and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the past decade, the inspector general has found issues with beryllium protections at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratories and Y-12 National Security Complex, as well as at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Los Alamos shares contractors with both Y-12 and Lawrence Livermore.
According to the report, Los Alamos lost track of the deadly metal on a number of occasions, including misplaced beryllium-contaminated equipment and a missing beryllium container. The report also found missing hazard assessment documents for more than 50 percent of the on-site beryllium inventory.
The documents are required to inform workers of the risk at a given site.
The issues highlighted by the inspector general are the latest example of serious workplace safety violations that have occurred in the past year, including radioactive contamination and other injuries to workers. A federal investigation was launched in late 2017 following a “near-miss to a fatality” at the lab.
The inspector general report this week said many of the discrepancies were the result of a new policy put in place by the lab in 2016, meant to correct problems with beryllium monitoring identified in 2015. But the National Nuclear Security Administration never approved the policy, and as a result, the actions violated federally mandated requirements, the report said. Record-keeping issues dated back to problems from 2009, according to the report.
The NNSA field office at Los Alamos said in the report that its oversight was “insufficient” because of staffing issues and the amount of health and safety programs it is responsible for overseeing at the lab, which employs more than 11,000 workers.
“Los Alamos did not reduce or eliminate operational controls that would have adversely affected worker exposure, but we remain focused on ensuring continued improvement in our administrative and record keeping processes,” Matt Nerzig, chief spokesman at Los Alamos, said Friday in an email.
“We are committed to the improvement of our Beryllium program at Los Alamos National Laboratory and are addressing the recommendations outlined in the Inspector General’s report,” Nerzig added.
In a response to the report, the NNSA said in a letter the deficiencies have not resulted in any known exposures at Los Alamos.
Workers who develop chronic beryllium disease are among those eligible for compensation and medical benefits under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, administered by the U.S. Labor Department. The program also compensates workers who develop cancer and other diseases linked to radiation and chemical exposure resulting from work at national laboratories, including Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.
In order to obtain benefits, workers have to prove they are not only sick but worked around beryllium — something the lab’s record-keeping gaps could make difficult for workers to show when filing claims.
Workers’ advocates said they were discouraged to see Los Alamos still has such significant gaps in beryllium protections.
“It’s a very serious issue, and I was disappointed that there are still problems at Los Alamos,” said Terrie Barrie, a longtime advocate with the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups.
Regulations to protect workers from beryllium exposure were put in place in 1999 at Los Alamos, but the inspector general report says the lab could not provide assurances that the amount of beryllium to which workers were exposed was safe.
Manufacturing of beryllium has occurred at Los Alamos since 1993, after the closure of the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, where vast quantities of plutonium pits were produced throughout the Cold War, creating extensive environmental contamination and worker exposure issues.
When manufacturing plutonium pits — the softball-sized fission triggers that ignite nuclear bombs — beryllium is used to surround the pit in a shell, or “skull,” that reflects neutrons to contain the critical mass of the bomb and increase the force of the explosion.
Los Alamos has been creating pits since the 1990s, but it has had several work pauses as a result of serious safety issues and insufficient staffing. Some members of Congress have asked the NNSA to provide further assurances of lab safety before work continues.
The Department of Energy is reviewing bids to decide who the next management contractor will be at Los Alamos. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in an interview Friday he believes the new contract will be key to improving safety at the lab.
“I think that is the place to have the absolute biggest impact and set the standard for how workers at Los Alamos will be treated,” he said, “and to create the kind of zero-tolerance-for-unsafe-activities culture that is just like how you run a factory or a mine or any other high-risk working situation.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called the report “concerning” and said he would ask for an explanation of what happened.
The lab is currently vying to house an assembly-line production facility of plutonium pits. Its main competition is the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
On Thursday, the NNSA said it also would like a more than tenfold increase in the amount of radioactive material that may be used at the lab’s Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, raising the limit of 38.6 grams of plutonium-equivalent material to 400 grams. That would change the hazard classification of the building to a Hazard Category 3 Nuclear Facility. An environmental assessment released by the lab is currently available for public comment.
In an email, Lindsey Geisler, a spokeswoman for the NNSA, said this change would help free space at the lab’s plutonium facility but is not directly tied to the decision regarding an increase in pit production.
She said “no radiological doses or risks are expected among members of the public” due to the modification in the building, and accident risk would be confined within the laboratory.
“Accident risks under both alternatives are minimal,” Geisler said. “Any risk to workers would also be minimal.”
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