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Our View: WIPP accident requires look at LANL culture

Posted: Saturday, May 31, 2014 7:00 pm | Updated: 10:03 pm, Sat May 31, 2014.

The New Mexican

Those involved in the early days of decision-making about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant remember the experts and scientists testifying how impossible it would be for radiation from the underground bunker to reach the surface air.

We now know those experts were wrong — that in assessing the safety of the physical structure, they were missing the people problem, the management challenges.

In his groundbreaking book, Normal Accidents, Yale sociologist Charles Perrow explains that ever-increasing complex systems make accidents more likely as multiple small mistakes by the humans who manage and operate those systems escalate.

That was the conclusion of accident investigations at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant and Fukushima, Japan. We don’t know the final cause of the radiation release at WIPP, but we do know the system to deliver waste from scattered locations around the United States — including Los Alamos National Laboratory — is largely for-profit, privatized and very bureaucratic, with layers and layers of contractors and subcontractors.

Did one decision by a subcontractor at one place such as Los Alamos lead to the temporary closure of a multimillion-dollar project, which might be stalled for years? It sure looks like it.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn deserves credit for being proactive and out front in trying to get to the bottom of the accident, even as the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors are still gathering information.

But finding the precise cause will not be enough. Increasingly, there are other questions about safety at LANL. We have to ask if outsourcing and the performance-based bonus culture that has taken hold since privatization is partly responsible.

In his introduction, social scientist Perrow writes:

“Most high-risk systems have some special characteristics, beyond their toxic or explosive or genetic dangers, that make accidents in them inevitable, even ‘normal.’ This has to do with the way failures can interact and the way the system is tied together. It is possible to analyze these special characteristics and in doing so gain a much better understanding of why accidents occur in these systems, and why they always will. … Risk will never be eliminated from high-risk systems. At the very least, however, we might stop blaming the wrong people and the wrong factors, and stop trying to fix the systems in ways that only make them riskier.”

Waste from weapons production always will be risky. But only by honestly examining the culture of health and safety within the Energy Department, its facilities and its contract workforce can we learn from the WIPP accident and make necessary changes.


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