updated 2/27/2007 8:54:43 AM ET 2007-02-27T13:54:43

The National Nuclear Security Administration proposed a $1.1 million civil penalty against the former manager of a nuclear weapons lab for safety violations that included a researcher spreading radiological contamination to two other states and workers inhaling radioactive substances.

The agency announced the notice of violation Monday against the University of California for infractions that occurred in 2005, when UC was the sole manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The notice spells out 15 separate incidents that violated the Department of Energy’s nuclear safety rules.

The incidents include a Los Alamos researcher opening a package of slightly enriched uranium nitride pellets. The package was contaminated with americium 241, a radioactive decay product of plutonium.

From Los Alamos to Kansas
The researcher unloaded the pellets without the help of a radiological control technician, and he spread the contamination to his home and places he visited in Colorado and Kansas.

Another incident involved workers who inhaled radioactive substances.

In both cases, the contamination was limited by “good fortune” but had the potential to be significantly greater, acting NNSA director Thomas P. D’Agostino wrote in a Feb. 16 letter to lab director Michael Anastasio.

The notice also referred to a November 2005 inspection that exposed “long-standing” deficiencies in the lab’s safety, health and environmental programs.

Since federal law exempted the non-profit university from financial liability at the time of the violations, the UC will not have to pay the fine. But the agency warned the lab’s new management team — installed less than a year ago, in part to reverse years of security and safety problems — that those days are over.

“Due both to the recent contract change and changes in the civil penalty provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, future monetary civil penalties imposed ... as part of a notice of violation will no longer be waived,” D’Agostino wrote.

Several managers now
The lab is now managed by Los Alamos National Security LLC, which includes the university, Bechtel Corp., BWX Technologies Inc. and Washington Group International.

D’Agostino said he expects corrective actions to be one of Anastasio’s highest priorities as lab director.

UC spokesman Chris Harrington said in a statement Monday that the university has taken a number of steps to fix the problems outlined by the NNSA.

“The University of California takes safety and security issues very seriously as part of our commitment to managing the national laboratories,” Harrington said.

The notice of violation is the latest in a rash of criticism against the lab. Just last month, members of a House oversight committee threatened to strip the lab of its security responsibilities — or even shut it down — to correct security lapses.

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