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Board Questions Safety at Nuclear Weapons Factory
The U.S. Energy Department overlooked the severity of a fire in a building full of plutonium, a federal watchdog agency charged in a report hammering safety procedures at a former nuclear weapons factory in Colorado, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Aug. 20, 2003).
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the Energy Department reported a small May 2003 fire at the closed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, but upon further investigation the blaze was revealed to have involved 15-foot flames. Workers at the scene compounded the risk by pouring water on the fire, which could have led to a fatal radioactive flash. The board also discovered that employees turned the building fans to exhaust, possibly releasing radiation from the building, according to the Associated Press.
The board said Rocky Flats firefighters, who have plutonium fire training, did not arrive at the scene for 11 minutes because workers called their boss first.
“We lost our edge on being vigilant here,” said Paul Golan, chief operating officer for environmental management at the Energy Department. “I personally was disappointed it happened. We are going to have to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he added.
The board said that the Energy Department, which is supervising independent contractor Kaiser-Hill’s dismantling of the highly contaminated plant, allowed a “wholesale breakdown” in safety. It also called the department’s supervision of Kaiser-Hill ineffective for failing to notice repeated safety violations.
Department officials in Washington admitted there were “significant deficiencies” by Kaiser-Hill and Energy Department employees in Colorado. They said they have begun an independent safety review of Rocky Flats, as requested by the board.
The Rocky Flats site was cleared of its last remaining weapon-grade plutonium in August and is set to be transformed into a wildlife refuge (Associated Press, March 22).
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