Watchdog scolds Energy Department lab over toxic metal exposure

Watchdog scolds Energy Department lab over toxic metal exposure

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory didn’t properly protect workers from exposure to beryllium for a period in 2016, a new report found.

DOE’s Office of Inspector General found that Los Alamos, operated by a private contractor, temporarily used different, unapproved methods to track beryllium and protect workers, contrary to regulations.

Beryllium inhalation in high amounts can cause chronic beryllium disease, a deadly lung condition. Beryllium is used in nuclear weapons, one of the main purposes of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.

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Investigators with the inspector general did not say they found any evidence of beryllium exposure or disease due to the oversight, but in a report released this week, they said it was possible.

“There may have been an increased risk that workers were inappropriately exposed to beryllium contamination in locations used for other purposes,” investigators wrote.

“An accurate beryllium inventory is essential for determining beryllium locations, conducting work planning and establishing procedures that result in adequate worker protection from beryllium hazards. Without an accurate beryllium inventory, Los Alamos may not monitor and apply beryllium controls where needed.”

Department regulations mandate strict standards for tracking known locations of beryllium, the reuse of former beryllium locations and other factors.

Investigators found that in 2016, Los Alamos switched to a new process for tracking the toxic metal, which made changes like reducing sampling requirements for testing. It had not been approved by DOE’s field office.

Los Alamos quickly switched back to its previous beryllium policies after the inspector general raised red flags. DOE promised to keep a closer eye on the process.

The Los Alamos lab has had a long history of problems and controversies, including losing nuclear secrets, credit card fraud and safety lapses, as documented in a 2016 report by the Santa Fe New Mexican.