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STANFORD -- Fifty health, safety and environmental experts -- a "Tiger Team" sent by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) -- arrived Oct. 7 to inspect the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL).
The experts are looking for ways to improve the laboratories' safety, environmental protection and waste management procedures.
Their month-long visit is part of a nationwide safety review that has brought reforms -- and some trauma -- to 28 other research laboratories and weapons facilities that operate under Energy Department supervision.
The inspectors will keep their process open to local agencies responsible for environmental, health and safety regulations, and to representatives of Local 680 of the United Stanford Workers. A draft of their report will be presented to the Secretary of Energy and to Congress, and should be available in public reading rooms by early December. SLAC's corrective action plan also will be made public.
SLAC and SSRL personnel have been preparing for almost a year for the visit. Burton Richter, director of the accelerator center, told the inspectors in a welcoming address that when Secretary of Energy James Watkins first formed the Tiger Teams in 1989, "our first reaction was, it's about time DOE did something about those weapons plants, but this doesn't apply to us."
Since the Stanford laboratories began their own self- assessment, Richter said, "We found that although we had a good record, we were not up to the regulatory environment of modern times."
SLAC has since set up a new environmental safety and health division to serve both laboratories. The number of workers dedicated to safety and health increased from 30 to 78 in the 1991 fiscal year, and the budget for those activities rose from $4.5 million to $7.5 million.
Richter said that SLAC's internal self-assessment shows a need for improvement in several areas: more written procedures to implement safety policies; better implementation and communication of the policies that are written down; improved personnel training; sufficient reviews or follow-up to make sure that safety policies are carried out.
Among the "root causes" of the shortcomings, Richter said, were not enough resources from the Energy Department to develop safety procedures and train staff, and an inadequate system at the labs for keeping up with environmental health and safety assessments. He said that in the past, the laboratories' senior management did not take the program seriously enough.
"We're taking it seriously now," he said.
The self-assessment process has become a part of the cycle of the inspection visits, which are aimed at making safety concerns a part of the culture of DOE-funded facilities.
George Werkema, team leader of SLAC's Tiger Team, said the purpose of the teams was not to pounce on wrongdoings, but to help laboratory personnel work out action plans to correct problems and follow up on them in the future. "We will also look at what is done well, so we can pass the ideas on to others," he said.
As James Decker, deputy director of the DOE's Office of Energy Research, told SLAC workers, "No one should know your problems better than you." He reminded them of Tiger Team visits to other laboratories where the lab had "lost control of the process." For example, at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, the Secretary of Energy halted construction of a new facility because of problems with worker safety.
Other laboratories that do high-energy physics such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory already have been inspected, and a news article in Science magazine reports that Tiger Teams typically have listed hundreds of adverse findings at each one.
Violations range from improper record-keeping to unsafe electrical connections to improper storage of hazardous wastes. Energy Department spokesman John Belluardo said most of the findings fall in the categories of non-serious code violations or undesirable practices; a few have required action to prevent serious potential harm. He said that a "Category One (imminent danger to life and health") violation is an unlikely occurrence.
To correct all unsafe practices and upgrade all administrative procedures at the physics labs that have been inspected so far would cost from $20 million to $1 billion per lab, according to the Science magazine article. Larry Weiner, director of special projects for the Department of Energy and chief of the Tiger Teams program, said these costs represent all environmental, safety and health upgrades at the laboratories, including many identified before the inspections.
The cost of correction will be spread over several years and paid out of administrative and overhead funds granted by the Department of Energy, Weiner said. "In the end, the cost of correcting (environmental and safety) problems is a cost of doing business," he said. "In this case, the business is doing research. Now we will find out how much doing research costs."
Noting that many of the Energy Department's laboratories were built before present-day regulations, he predicted that environmental, health and safety considerations would be part of plans for new facilities in the future.
"It's cheaper to do it right the first time," Weiner said.
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