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Department of Energy says contractors at US nuclear facilities mishandled explosives

17 July 2012

Contractors at several government nuclear facilities have routinely mishandled explosives, unnecessarily endangering the lives of employees and the public, according to a Department of Energy report released on July 12. 

The Idaho National Laboratory is one of four federal establishments said to be in breach of the DoE's explosives safety manual
The Idaho National Laboratory is one of four federal establishments said to be in breach of the DoE's explosives safety manual

The Department of Energy Inspector General’s report said that contractors that operate four sites that handle nuclear materials did not fully comply with the department’s explosives safety manual – a nearly 500-page guide to handling and storing explosives. The sites in question are Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, which perform nuclear weapons testing; Idaho National Laboratory, which researches nuclear energy; and the Savannah River Site, which focuses on nuclear waste and remediation. 

The report said that management at the sites “took immediate action” in response to the Inspector General’s recommendations, resolving many of the issues the report details. Among these issues were incorrect signage that misrepresented explosive hazards and the storage of combustible material in explosives bunkers. 

However, the labs did not comply with all of the inspector general’s recommendations, the report said. For example, workers at Idaho National Laboratory continue to inspect explosives shipments at the lab’s main gate, which endangers hundreds of employees who pass through the gate daily, the report said.

Included in the inspector general's report are written responses from the department’s Office of Health, Safety and Security and from Idaho National Laboratory. In its response, the health office agreed with the recommendation to limit explosives shipments to routes that would put as few people in danger for as little time as possible. The office, which enforces safety at department facilities, said it would discuss this concern at the next annual meeting of the department’s Explosives Safety Committee.

Idaho National Laboratory disagreed with the inspector general’s claim that the lab’s explosives shipment inspection route did not “minimise the impact of inadvertent detonation.” Idaho said that there is a “limited number of personnel (approximately six) working at the inspection location."

“Personnel that are not associated with the inspection and screening of incoming vehicles are considered transients,” according to the lab, referring to the department’s term for people who are near explosives areas for short amounts of time. Transients are not counted in personnel limits for explosives areas, according to the explosives safety manual.

The presence of explosives at these facilities is part of the department’s “research into explosives detection, effects and mitigation,” according to the report.

The inspector general performed this inspection because of “the dangerous nature of explosives, the potential for catastrophic incidents and our prior concerns,” detailed in reports from 2011 and 2006, according to the new report. 

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