February 25, 2021
Second of three articles describing NIF’s rapid restart following the 2020 pandemic shutdown.
The health and safety protocols that let NIF resume experiments shortly after regional COVID-19 shelter-in-place directives took effect this past spring remain in place into the new year. Those protocols helped NIF maintain a regular slate of experiments that are essential to national security.
The world’s largest and most energetic laser was the first of the nation’s large scientific facilities to restart about six weeks after the onset of community shutdowns thanks to a carefully crafted plan that examined all aspects of NIF’s operations to ensure worker safety while continuing its scientific advancements.
“The entire NIF team pulled together to get NIF back online,” said NIF Director Doug Larson. “During the shutdown, the supervisors worked hard to get nearly every staff member working productively from home, catching up on procedure revisions, training, and other things that are hard to find time for during regular operations. And the planning and execution of the restart was nothing short of incredible.”
When the San Francisco Bay Area’s regional leaders enacted a COVID-19 shelter-in-place policy beginning March 17, 2020, the entire Lab transitioned into what is called minimum safe posture, with a limited number of employees working on site to ensure the safety and security of LLNL and its facilities. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order two days later.
At the same time, LLNL began working closely with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to identify mission-essential activities that needed to be restarted to support of important national security missions.
For NIF&PS, that meant methodically formulating a restart plan that included measures to protect the health of the directorate’s workers—which was of the highest priority—while allowing for mission-critical activities to resume. The measures included procuring recommended COVID-19 personal protection equipment (PPE) and implementing additional protocols such as washing hands and maintaining social distancing inside NIF and its various supporting offices and buildings.
The measures also had to take into account stringent safety protocols, such as wearing protective face masks, respirators, and gloves that were already in place for NIF radiological and laser workers long before the pandemic.
Senior managers worked with LLNL Biosafety Officer Carolyn Hall and Environment, Safety & Health Department Clinician Kathleen Noonan to develop those protocols and communicate them to employees (see “Pandemic Puts BioSafety Officer in Every Corner of the Lab”).
The plans incorporated guidance from entities including the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state of California, and Alameda County.
“The Lab’s biosafety officer and Health Services organization have been outstanding resources for training and guidance on dealing with these challenges,” Larson said.
NIF workers were required to undergo new training sessions covering the new COVID-19 rules. Employees from day, night, and weekend shifts were brought in separately to conduct several dry runs to prepare for resumption of activities.
The dry runs were carefully monitored in the various work areas by observers to make sure the additional protocols were followed and noted whether the procedures were effective.
The NIF Control Room underwent significant changes to increase distances between employees, reduce the number of people inside for a shot, and increase the ventilation rate.
“We’ve installed plexiglass screens on and in between consoles, established one-way walking paths, and added additional control consoles in adjacent rooms,” said NIF Operations Manager Bruno Van Wonterghem. “We’ve also separated operators by at least 7.5 feet.”
Some of the changes led to a more efficient and permanent way to update control system software (see “Remote NIF Control Software Updates Lead to Less Stress, More Efficiency”). Other changes have made for improvements in target fabrication.
As a few more workers returned on site regularly or on as-needed basis, LLNL moved to a posture called “Reduced Mission-Critical Operations.” And with new protocols in place, NIF was able to conduct its first target shot on April 26, 2020, supporting Los Alamos National Laboratory’s “MShock” campaign exploring hydrodynamic instabilities as part of the NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program (see “Experiments Resume at the National Ignition Facility”).
NIF resumed its schedule of shots and maintenance as LLNL moved to a posture called “Normal Operations with Maximum Telework,” with much of the directorate’s staff working from home if possible. Scientists, experimenters, engineers and subject matter experts continue to work remotely and on call as necessary to support operations.
“We installed tools that allow our experimenters to observe target and diagnostic alignment while interacting with the operators as if they were physically present in the control room” Van Wonterghem said.
The COVID-19 safety protocols remain in place and were refined. The time spent telecommuting allowed staff to learn to better communicate through videoconferencing, phones, and chat and to experiment with new methods.
Pre-start meetings are being conducted with six feet distance between participants, or outside or over videoconferencing when possible. Other measures include limiting the number of people in pre-gowning areas, staggering lunches and breaks, more frequent cleaning of gowning and common areas, and minimizing handles and other surfaces workers need to touch while doing their work.
Other adjustments included using ear guards to make respirators more comfortable. Beards were another sacrifice—facial hair causes respirators to not seal properly, limiting their effectiveness.
“Workers, supervisors, and managers watch each other all the time so we make sure we remain safe and not drop our guard as a team,” Van Wonterghem said. “Observations good and not so good are exchanged and discussed at a weekly meeting.
“The population that is onsite has been growing slowly and more people are here for a fraction of the time to better connect with the mothership and their team,” he added. “Our overriding consideration is to do this work in a way that gives our workforce and ourselves confidence we can safely operate the NIF and support facilities with the additional controls in place needed for COVID-19.”
Earlier in This Series:
Part 1: “Remote NIF Control Software Updates Lead to Less Stress, More Efficiency” NIF & Photon Science News, February 11, 2021
Next in This Series:
Part 3: “Target Fabrication Team Helped Speed NIF’s Rapid Restart” NIF & Photon Science News, March 15, 2021
—Benny Evangelista and Patricia Koning
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