LANL loses track of nuclear materials
Plutonium operations placed in standby mode
In an April 20, 2012 report, the Safety Board charged with oversight of defense nuclear facilities reported that the system used to track nuclear materials in the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory was operating erroneously. The system apparently only kept track of 1,700 out of 13,000 containers of nuclear “materials at risk” (MAR). This omission caused the facility to exceed its limits for MAR located in individual containers and outside of gloveboxes at least 15 times.
If one is operating a facility with large quantities of fissionable nuclear materials it is very important to know where the materials are at all times because stacking too much plutonium in one place can cause a criticality event or worse. After the error was noticed, the Lab manually started to verify container MAR amounts manually. “To date, fifteen containers, all housed in the facility’s vault, have been identified with contents that exceed the MAR limit of 7500 g WG-Pu [Weapons Grade Plutonium] equivalent.” That’s a lot to lose track of because these limits help the facility to comply with the seismic requirements of operations in the Lab’s earthquake fault zone.
Normal operations have been terminated in the 150,000 square foot Plutonium Facility and the facility has been placed in “Standby Mode.” How much does a shutdown cost taxpayers?
How long has the Lab violated these limits? The report states that the tracking error was introduced during software development, apparently due to a “miscommunication” between the software developers and the security personnel. The MAR tracker program performs other required MAR limit surveillances in the facility. Are these other surveillances reliable? This incident also calls into question other Lab software, such as programs that model contaminant transport.
It is unclear if the plutonium facility has restarted operations. The Safety Board reports usually are released about a month after they are written.
The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board Report is here.