BY MAIRE O’NEILL
A former Los Alamos National Laboratory employee who mistakenly shipped Type B fissile plutonium by air from LANL to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in June 2017 has filed suit against Los Alamos National Security, LLC.
Juan Montoya worked at the Lab from January 2002 to July 2017 when he was terminated by LANS. The suit, which was filed Oct. 12 by attorney Timothy Butler in First Judicial District Court, says that during his employment he at all times received good performance reviews, was never subject to disciplinary actions and had no security infractions.
The suit states that in June 2017, Montoya was employed as an authorized shipper by LANS at the main warehouse and that as part of his duties he shipped radioactive and hazardous materials. It says that about six months prior to his termination, the senior shipper moved to another job leaving Montoya as the most senior shipper at the warehouse. It claims he had three years of experience and three days of training specifically related to the shipping of radioactive and hazardous materials.
Montoya claims that along with his duties he was training and supervising three coworkers as they learned the shipping process at the warehouse. He says he had spoken to his supervisors on many times indicating that he was short-staffed and needed help with the shipping process but that no action was taken.
The suit states that around the week of June 5, 2017, he was notified by a requestor from TA-54 by phone that he would be receiving shipping requests to shop Type 2 fissile plutonium to LLNL and SR. Like other shipments from TA-54 dealing with plutonium, Montoya says he was told that both of the shipments were “rush shipments”. While completing the paperwork, Montoya noted the shipments as “air shipments” and attached “air cargo only” labels to the two drums.
“However, Montoya made a mistake. All his previous plutonium shipments had been Type A plutonium which can go either air or ground. These particular shipments were Type B fissile plutonium shipments that were required to go only by ground. Montoya called for ground shipping knowing that government regulations prohibited these types of shipments to go by air,” the suit says. All radioactive shipments require a radioactive materials checklist and the suit indicates that Montoya when he completed the checklist, indicated that the shipments would be shipped by air.
Montoya maintains there was no other authorized shipper or manager in the warehouse due to scheduling and that another section at LANL that has authorized shippers but that they were not available in time for Montoya to make the shipping deadline.
“Due to their sensitive nature the shipments could not be securely stored at the main warehouse over the weekend because managers were not available to allow weekend storage and the shipping was on a critical timeline, this phase in the QA process was skipped by Montoya. Skipping QA by Montoya and others had occurred other times in the past with full knowledge of direct managers and local requestors,” the suit says.
As part of his process Montoya says he sent copies of the shipping document to others including LLNL and SRS as well as the Emergency Response team at LANS for review prior to the shipment.
“FedEx has the same shipping requirements as LANS does. The FedEx workers also missed the requirement for shipping plutonium by using a Type B container. Montoya did not hear from the requestor, the Emergency Response team, the LLNL customer, the SRS customer or FedEx. The shipment went by air,” the suit said.
Montoya was later notified that LLNL officials believed the shipment went by air. Montoya at that time said he thought the shipment had been sent in the same manner as other shipments he had done for the requester, which was via ground. When he followed up, Montoya found out that the shipments had actually gone by air. When he passed on the information, the suit indicates he was told the issue with SRS was not going to be a problem. Montoya indicates that he believes both the requestor and LLNL could have prevented the shipment from leavings LANS or prevented it from leaving Albuquerque by air transport.
On June 22, the suit states that Montoya attended a factfinding meeting was held on the LLNL delivery but that the SRS shipment was not discussed at that meeting even though although his managers knew about it. The suit claims Montoya was interviewed twice by Human Resource personnel but hear nothing more until he was terminated and that he tried to appeal his termination but was not provided with the HR investigation findings, relevant documents or recommendations on which to base his appeal. Its says Montoya’s direct supervisor received a two-week suspension without pay and has since been promoted to a management position at LANS.
The suit says Montoya has since obtained employment elsewhere at a much lower salary. He is claiming past and future loss of salary. He is suing for breach of contract. He is accusing LANS of failing to accurately, fairly and completely investigate and report the facts and circumstances relating to the improper shipment, failing to apply progressive discipline in a fair and consistent manner towards Montoya and other relevant employees, and failure to provide adequate management presence, supervision, training resources and safeguards regarding the shipment of radioactive materials. It also accused LANS of “scapegoating Montoya for LANS’ root cause systemic failures in processes, procedures, supervision and training”related to the improper shipment.
LANS has not yet filed a response to the complaint in District Court.
Chief Lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said in an email earlier this week that LANS “held accountable those involved from the individual contributor level up the management chain through actions that included terminations, suspensions and compensation consequences”.
“The responsibility for fissile nuclear material shipments has been transferred to a different organization within the Laboratory,” he said.”