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UA grad to probe collision for Navy

A Little Rock native and graduate of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, will lead the U.S. Navy’s investigation into the June 17 collision of a Philippine-flagged container ship with the USS Fitzgerald, which resulted in the deaths of seven sailors. The Navy named Rear Adm. Brian Fort as the lead investigator Friday. Fort is commander of Navy Region Hawaii and commander of Naval Surface Group Middle Atlantic. Fort graduated from Little Rock Catholic High School in 1985 and the UA in 1989, receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

He earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College, according to a biography of him at Fort is also a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College. The collision occurred on a clear night about 64 miles southwest of Yokosuka, Japan, when the ACX Crystal crashed nose-first into the Fitzgerald’s right side, according to the Navy. The 29,060-ton ACX Crystal is about four times the size of the Fitzgerald, which is a guided-missile destroyer. The Fitzgerald suffered severe damage, including a large puncture below the ship’s waterline, opening the hull to the sea, according to a news release. The collision caused rapid flooding of three compartments that included two berthing areas for 116 of the 300 crew members on the ship.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan, held a news conference Sunday saying there may be several investigations of the collision. Fort is leading what is known as the Manual of the Judge Advocate General investigation.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is to take the lead on the marine casualty investigation,” Aucoin said. “We recognize that there are other organizations who have equities in this incident, and we expect they will conduct their own separate investigations. … I will not speculate on how long these investigations will last.”

According to a news article from the U.S. Naval Institute, Fort’s job will be to guide investigators who are collecting data from the ship, interview the crew and evaluate other details. Fort’s past assignments include command of the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Gonzalez, command of Destroyer Squadron 26 — serving as the sea combat commander for the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group — and command of the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit at Ballston Spa, N.Y. He also served as executive officer of the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston, S.C., as the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs.

Fort graduated in 1981 from Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic School in Little Rock, which has pupils from preschool through eighth grade. According to a post on the school’s Facebook page, Fort is married to the former Kelli Laine Simpson, who is a 1986 graduate of Mount Saint Mary Academy in Little Rock and a 1990 graduate of the UA, Fayetteville, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. They have two daughters. Madison is a graduate of Texas A&M University, and Olivia is a student at Virginia Tech University, according to the post.

Metro on 06/24/2017

‘Absolutely unacceptable’ error in shipment of nuclear materials prompts probe

Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing a new federal investigation for shipping nuclear materials out of state by aircraft, in violation of federal law, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which called the error absolutely unacceptable. The agency released a statement Friday, saying the lab had mislabeled shipments of special nuclear materials a term used for radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium and uranium that were headed last week to the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The shipments were packaged for ground cargo transportation, but instead were shipped by air, which is a mode of transportation not authorized by Federal regulations, according to the statement.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, referred questions to the National Nuclear Security Administration. The incident follows similar violations at the lab this spring involving mislabeled chemicals and hazardous waste, including nuclear materials. It also comes as the lab has faced a fresh wave of scrutiny from federal officials over whether it is capable of handling increasing quantities of plutonium as the nation ramps up its production of plutonium pits the grapefruit-sized cores that trigger nuclear bombs over the next 15 years at a Los Alamos facility. The protocols for shipping sensitive nuclear materials by air are significantly different than those for ground shipments. More sensitive climate and pressure controls must be in place to transport plutonium by air, and special external controls are required to guard against an accident during flight or a radiation release, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said the incident didn t lead to any loss of radioactive materials or contamination. The agency said it will investigate to determine the root cause of this incident, as well as procedures to avoid future incidents of this type, and said it intends to hold the responsible parties accountable under the full terms of the lab s management contract, currently held by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium led by the University of California, Bechtel and other corporations. The contract is currently up for bid, a decision made by the federal government following a series of management and safety issues. The lab is expected to be under new management in 2018.

But significant safety lapses continue. In April, work was paused at the lab s plutonium facility after a worker handled an unlabeled waste container that ignited, causing a small fire that gave one worker second-degree burns. In May, the lab failed to accurately document the pH levels of liquid hazardous waste shipped in drums to Colorado the second time such an incident had occurred in six months. The waste was far more acidic than documented on its labels, which means it was likely more volatile. Those incidents triggered reviews of workplace and emergency protocols. The lab also informed the New Mexico Environment Department this spring that it had been storing two drums containing nitrate salts in a special containment area for months, believing they were part of a volatile waste stream, only to learn the canisters were not dangerous.

These drums highlight one of the most notorious mispackaging mistakes in the lab s recent history. A nitrate salt drum containing items laced with radioactive waste was packed with the wrong type of absorbent kitty litter at Los Alamos, causing a chemical reaction that led the drum to burst in the salt caverns of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February 2014. The event led to a low-level radiological release and shut down the underground nuclear waste facility for nearly three years, at a cost of over $1 billion. At a hearing in Santa Fe earlier this month, federal officials raised questions about how the lab would deal with unprecedented levels of plutonium, in order to build as many as 80 pits per year by 2030 as part of the nation s goals of modernizing its nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which advises the Department of Energy and the president, asked federal and lab officials about a lack of foresight as the program moves forward, as well as aging infrastructure at the lab. Questions also were raised about the lab consistently failing to meet expectations in its nuclear criticality safety program which is meant to ensure serious nuclear accidents don t occur and potentially cause a widespread release of radiation. Los Alamos was the only national laboratory in the country to fail its review for nuclear criticality safety in 2016. Additional scrutiny of the lab has come as the result of an investigative series by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, which examined a legacy of problems at Los Alamos plutonium facility. The reporting, published earlier this week in The New Mexican, highlighted safety incidents that have led to near misses of serious radiological events. The lapses led to an exodus of talented nuclear engineers.

The series also highlighted the lab s failure to produce or test working plutonium pits. Following publication of the report, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., questioned U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry at a Senate appropriations hearing about the safety of Los Alamos plutonium operations. He asked for assurances that safety would be a higher priority as the lab comes under new management next year. The Associated Press obtained a memo from Los Alamos officials that circulated internally, referring to a false narrative about the lab s operations and saying workers should be proud of your laboratory s accomplishments over the past decade to strengthen our ability to operate safely and securely.

The memo was circulated even as the new safety violations were discovered.

This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable, National Nuclear Security Administrator Frank Klotz said in a statement Friday in response to the improper air shipment of nuclear materials.

I require the contractors who manage and operate our national laboratories and production plants to rigorously adhere to the highest safety and security standards in performing the vitally important work they do for our national security, he said.

During a conference call in May with members of the media, Klotz said a report is being prepared to examine the Los Alamos lab s ability to manage the nation s plutonium program and whether the work could be accomplished at other facilities as an alternative. That assessment is due later this summer.

A joyless week in court

Unfortunately, there was no lack of pain on display in Lake County Circuit Court last week as three men were sentenced in local murder cases. As Circuit Judge Daniel Shanes said during one of the sentencing hearings Wednesday, “There is no joy here.”

Each case, as usual, brought two sets of friends and relatives to the polished wooden benches of felony court. Often sitting on opposite sides of the benches, one group is mourning the loss of a family member a father, a son, a cousin, a spouse. A special friend. Nothing will bring that person back, but usually loved ones will bear numerous hearings and trial appearances before a sentence is determined. They may or may not hear an apology from the defendant.

The second group is there to see how long a friend or family member will be spending in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Calculating the months, years and sometimes decades that will pass before, if ever, their son, daughter, father, friend, will come home. Often, soft crying can be heard from members of both groups, sometimes the painful emotions can’t be contained and lead to outbursts, inevitably followed by someone leaving on their own or being escorted out of the courtroom. There is no joy here.

Charged with maintaining order among tragedy are the court security officers, who increase in numbers with the severity of the case. Before a murder sentencing Monday, a security officer addressed the audience with a plea for restraint. “We know this will be an emotional hearing,” he said, and asked those in attendance to remember that despite the tragic subject matter, order and quiet must be preserved in the courtroom. He asked in advance that those who may feel themselves losing control of emotions to leave the court at that point.

“We’re all human,” he said. “We all have emotions.”

One onlooker followed those instructions after the hearing started, leaving as her crying increased to sobs. Sgt. Erwin Drummond of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office Court Security Division said security officers are trained to handle all aspects of possible problems in court. Whether confronted by sadness or anger, their job is to “preserve the process,” he said.

Drummond said goal number one is to ensure the safety of everyone in the court, from the judge, to attorneys, witnesses, defendants and observers. He said in some cases in which previous hearings have involved disruptions, or intelligence has been gained that there may be problems, staffing is increased. Officers are trained to respond with compassion when the situation calls for it, as well as enforcement duties when needed.

“We need to make sure everyone is safe and the judicial process doesn’t get disrupted,” Drummond said. In court, even following the most extreme disruptions, order will win out.

But during some busy weeks, one thing is also clear. Some observers may leave the courtroom with a measure of satisfaction or the feeling that justice has been done. But joy is nowhere to be found.

Nerheim hits top honors again

For the second time in four years, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim has been named State’s Attorney of the Year by the Illinois State Crime Commission. Nerheim received this year’s honor at a Crime Commission award ceremony Wednesday. He said Thursday he was surprised to claim the award a second time.

“I can’t believe it. It’s humbling,” Nerheim said. He first took the honor in 2014 for his efforts with initiatives to reduce heroin and opioid deaths and the supply and demand for illicit drugs, as well as the unlawful use of prescription drugs.

In announcing Nerheim as State’s Attorney of the Year for 2017, officials again cited his work on addressing the opioid epidemic as well as battling human trafficking, often involving minors.

“State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim has been a national leader in the battle against the opioid and heroin epidemic,” Illinois State Crime Commission Executive Director Jerry Elsner said in announcing the award. “In addition, he has been a leader in combating child sex trafficking, thereby saving families from the despicable horror of their children being exploited.”

Nerheim, who was first elected state’s attorney in 2012, cofounded the Lake County Opioid Initiative that same year. The group has partnered with other agencies and law enforcement to equip police, often the first responders to an overdose call, with Naloxone, a heroin and opioid antidote credited with saving 167 lives in Lake County since Christmas Day 2014. In addition, The Illinois Crime Commission credited Nerheim for collaborating with task forces that focus on the battle against child sex trafficking and exploitation, from Internet sex crimes to prostitution.

“I am extremely honored to receive this award by the Illinois State Crime Commission for the second time since taking office,” Nerheim said. “The award is a testament to the exceptional team of prosecutors, investigators, victim coordinators and staff members at the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office who go to work every day committed to seeking justice and serving our community.”

Nerheim also credited local law enforcement and community agencies and partners who help advance the local initiatives.

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