Safety issues lead to shutdown at Los Alamos lab

July 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A series of safety accidents, not just security lapses, prompted the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory to halt nearly all operations there Friday.

Los Alamos, one of the nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories, is under heavy criticism because of the disappearance on July 7 of two computer data storage devices containing classified information from its weapons physics division.

But in broadening a shutdown of classified work Thursday to include the entire laboratory Friday, G. Peter Nanos, the laboratory's director, cited safety and environmental concerns as well as security issues.

"In no case will I authorize a restart until I'm absolutely convinced that each organization will not risk further compromise of safety, security and environment," Nanos wrote in a memorandum to employees Friday.

The latest injury occurred Wednesday, when a 20-year-old woman suffered eye damage from a laser beam. The woman, a student intern who was not identified, had just finished a series of experiments involving a high-power, pulsed laser but lingered in the laboratory.

"Everyone was under the impression that the laser was off," said James Fallin, a laboratory spokesman.

Half an hour later, she complained of blurry vision in her left eye, and it was discovered that the laser had not been turned off. She suffered bleeding at the back of her eye from a lesion 1/50 of an inch wide, and arrangements are being made to fly her to Baltimore for treatment at Johns Hopkins, Fallin said.

The injury to the intern did not directly spur Nanos to impose the labwide work suspension, but "it certainly was the next and final event that led him to say stop," Fallin said. "It is the culmination of numerous things that have happened over recent months."

Fallin gave two other examples of safety violations, both of which occurred last year. In one, an employee injecting a chemical solution into a container did not seat the syringe properly, and the solution squirted into his eye. The employee did not suffer lasting damage to his vision, but "it demonstrated folks weren't paying attention," Fallin said.

In another incident, demolition work almost occurred near an electrical junction box that had not been turned off. "We probably would have had, at a minimum, electrocution," Fallin said. "At the worst, we would have had an explosion. People did not follow the appropriate safety procedure to make sure they had prepared for that day's work."

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