Mother Earth Gives Nuclear Renaissance a Black Eye

Our hearts and prayers go out go out to the people of Japan.

As Japan is faced with the possibility of nuclear meltdowns in five earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors, the U.S. and other countries are re-considering nuclear plans. While it is unlikely that radiation that has leaked or will leak from the Japanese reactor accidents will reach the United States.  This could change if there is an explosion and/or fire affecting one or more of the reactor cores or spent fuel pools. The accident at Chernobyl (25th anniversary is April 26th) affected the entire Northern Hemisphere because of a massive explosion in the core, and an out-of-control fire that burned for days.  This same scenario is unlikely in Japan. But reactors have been damaged beyond repair and old questions are being raised again.

In the U.S., Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts have made statements – “But I think we’ve got to kind of quietly put, quickly put, the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line,” Lieberman stated. “Any plant that is being considered for a seismically vulnerable area in the United States should be reconsidered right now,” Markey said, adding that the Japanese earthquake registering 8.9 in magnitude was “a hundred times greater in intensity” than the level that U.S. plants are built to withstand.

Countries in Europe are pausing to re-consider, also. Japan’s nuclear emergency Monday prompted Germany and Switzerland to halt nuclear programmes as anxious Europe scrambled to review cross-border safety while safeguarding the powerful industry. More

Why were the Fukushima reactors at sea level? Japan’s nuclear accident exposes the dilemma of whether to build power plants on tsunami-prone coasts or inland sites where water supplies are unreliable, a problem likely to be aggravated by climate change, experts say. (More from Reuters)

What happened at the Fukushima plant? “Three of its six reactors were in operation when the earthquake hit. The reactors — which went into service between 1970 and 1979 — are designed to shut down automatically when a quake strikes, and emergency diesel generators began the task of pumping water around the reactors to cool them down. However, these stopped about an hour later. The failure of the back-up generators has been blamed on tsunami flooding by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” More –

This event shows how Mother Earth can have her way with the best-made plans. The power company said that that 7.9 was the highest magnitude for which they tested the safety for their No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in Fukushima. The original magnitude was estimated to be 8.9, which would have been 10 ten times the magnitude 7.9 that the structures were tested for. The Japan Meteorological Agency up-rated Friday’s earthquake to 9.0 on the Richter scale, meaning that it was twice as powerful as initially thought. More

Here at home, we have no commercial reactors in New Mexico, but there are national nuclear weapons facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, which currently has plans for a $5 billion addition to the Lab’s plutonium weapons production complex. This addition, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is being designed to survive a 7.0 magnitude earthquake without releasing plutonium.  Much of the estimated cost is to seismically qualify the CMRR-NF to be built on the fault-ridden Pajarito Plateau. The plans call for a storage vault with the capacity of six metric tons of radioactive materials, such as plutonium.

Now would be a good time to re-consider any plans that make us feel invincible.


Weight Restrictions for Weapons Workers?

Question: What is the tripping-man impact scenario for a nuclear weapons production technician?

Answer: A 280 lb production technician traveling 2 .5 miles per hour.

We are all familiar with the horrible impacts that nuclear weapons have on humans, but now we have an Analysis of Human Impacts on Weapons. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) recently reviewed the Hazard Analysis Reports (HARs) for several nuclear explosive operations at the Pantex Plant and found that Plant could have a weight problem with its production technicians (PTs).

Of concern is that the weapons design agency supplies data on weapons responses for “tripping-man impact scenarios” based on the energy imparted by a 280 lb PT traveling 2.5 miles per hour. Tools and parts could break if someone larger tripped into a warhead while going faster that 2.5 mph. And Pantex has no controls in place to limit these human impact energies.

The DNFSB concluded that the “maximum PT impact energy does not represent an uncontrolled environment, such as lightning, earthquake, or meteorological conditions.” Pantex imposes other physical qualifications for PTs (such as age, sight, speech), as well as other limitations specified by the Human Reliability Program. They believe that weapon responses should be reevaluated for higher impact energies, or that Pantex should limit PT weights.

Revised Estimates for Safer Gloveboxes Hurt Budget

On the heels of a GAO report made public Monday, which stated that accounting procedures used by various branches of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex are preventing NNSA from pinpointing the exact total cost of maintaining its nuclear deterrent, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has released a weekly report also showing LANL’s inability to accurately estimate even the tiniest of specific costs.

In the June 4th weekly report for Los Alamos Lab, the DNFSB stated that the Lab underestimated the cost of seismically upgrading gloveboxes at its plutonium pit production complex by an order of magnitude. The DNFSB stated, “…the expected cost of seismic upgrades to individual gloveboxes has risen from an original estimate of about $80,000 per glovebox to a current estimate of approximately $850,000.” In addition, the Lab also ended up doubling the number of gloveboxes that need the upgrades as a priority up to 157.

So, in effect, the Labs original estimate for this glovebox work was $6.4 million (80 gloveboxes at $80,000 each), but the revised estimate is now $133.4 million (157 gloveboxes at $850,000 each). It’s hard to understand how new bracing and bolts to upgrade the legs of these gloveboxes could cost $80,000 each, much less $850,000. It’s not rocket science. Maybe the private corporation running the Lab underestimated the profits that they wanted to make for this much-needed work.  Make no mistake, there will be performance- based incentive award fees  for the work, as well as for the design and even the estimates.

In safety documents, the Lab originally stated that these upgrades would be done by 2011 to mitigate the possible off-site dose of plutonium to the public in the event of a large earthquake and subsequent facility fire. Guess what? The Lab will be behind schedule as well as way over budget. But LANL is already using its commitment for future glovebox seismic upgrades to reduce the mitigated dose consequence for a seismically-induced event in its dose calculations. So the public will be safe, only on paper, until the Lab finds the time and the money to upgrade those glovebox legs.

The Lab should focus on upgrading existing facilities and equipment and prove its ability and desire to protect the public before embarking on unneeded new construction, such as the CMRR – Nuclear Facility.

Update – Lab Shipment Scare at Sunport

Phil Parker at the Journal gives an update.

The package was labeled “explosives” on the inside, so the cargo handlers were rightfully concerned when their alarms went off. The cargo facility was closed for about four hours during the incident.

It was reported  that , “The containers are usually shipped via ground transportation but sometimes, he [LANL spokesperson] said, they’re sent by air.” I’m guessing that it costs more to send it by air, not to mention the extra cost of wasting time of the Albuquerque Police Department bomb squad, the cargo handlers, and Lab personnel.

The Journal reported, “Security at the airport didn’t know about the arrangement. “Apparently it was just a misunderstanding,” said airport spokesperson Daniel Jiron.” Once again, the Lab deflects any responsibility.

Lab Tries To Ship Explosives on Commercial Airline

KOB TV 4 broke the story and is still has the only account as best as I can tell. Read report and see video here.

Los Alamos National Laboratory sent an 8’ package labeled “explosives” to the Sunport to be flown to California on Southwest Airlines (where bags fly free). A sensor alarm alerted the cargo handlers to “a small amount of trace explosives” and the package never made it to the plane. It was reported that no flights were delayed and there was no danger. It was also reported that the Lab meant to ship the package by ground.

The danger here is that the Lab which is entrusted with the nation’s nuclear secrets cannot ship a package correctly. It was an 8’ package labeled “explosives.” It’s not like it got accidently mixed in with other packages and put on the wrong truck.

The public deserves all the facts. How did the “mix-up” occur? Has the Lab shipped similar packages before? What type of “explosive” label did the package have on it? Did it meet all shipping standards for explosives? Did the explosives pose a detonation hazard? Could the package really have been shipped by ground? How does an 8’ package labeled “explosives” even get unloaded into the air cargo building?

Operations at Plutonium Facility stood down due to fire suppression system

In the latest of a string of fire system deficiencies on Wednesday September 30th, LANL management declared the fire suppression system inoperable in PF-4 at TA-55. Facility activities were placed in stand-by mode, which were still stood down as of three weeks later on Oct. 23rd.

DNFSB explained that the stand down was based on recent hydraulic calculations that concluded the system does not achieve the water density coverage required. Basically, the sprinklers in 13 of approximately 100 fire suppression areas at PF-4 cannot meet the current required gallons per minute estimated to effectively extinguish a fire. (Read the Oct. 2nd-23rd DNFSB reports)

One has to wonder – What is the cost to the taxpayer of PF-4 being stood down for nearly a month?

These reports come on the heels of last week’s DNFSB recommendation that the Lab must immediately do something about its risk to the public of a seismically induced fire at PF-4, which was estimated to exceed the DOE guidelines by more than 100 times. In a worst-case situation, an earthquake-induced fire could set free enough breathable plutonium that a person on the perimeter of the facility would receive a lethal dose of radiation.

Speaking of seismically induced fires, I am reminded of a March 2007 LANL report, Seismic Fragility of the LANL Fire Water Distribution System (LA-14325), which explains how numerous valves in the fire water distribution system at the Lab would have to be manually closed to insure proper pressure to facilities on fire after a seismic event.

Granted, these may be low probability events, but they have high consequences. The Lab is playing with fire by not adequately funding upgrades to its existing fire systems now, before embarking construction of any new facilities.

Hikers, dogs found inside the fence

Summary Report of Occurrences Reviewed

From October 26 – 30, 2009
Near Miss –
NA – Los Alamos National Laboratory (Significance Category 3).
On October 22, a Water
Quality sampling crew discovered two hikers with three dogs at Technical Area 68 (TA-68)
during High Explosive (HE) Operations. The hikers were instructed to exit DOE property.
During interviews, the hikers stated they had hiked approximately one mile into TA-15.
During that time, TA-39-6 conducted two HE shots. A third shot scheduled for another shot
site was cancelled because of equipment issues. The hikers did not enter the TA-39-6 shot
Hazard Areas. Had the third shot been conducted, the hikers could have been within the
Hazard C Area with the potential for contamination or HE injury. A radiological control
technician surveyed the hikers and dogs for contamination. The contamination surveys
indicated no detectable activity and the hikers were released.

I’m glad everyone is OK, but I have some questions. The hikers clearly crossed a fence or a gate with one of those warning signs on it. There is no mention of security forces being called. The Lab has been busted for security issues many times in the past and can ill afford any more security problems. Is it possible that the Lab is trying to avoid having this incident count as a security violation? If they found me walking my dogs inside the fence, I’ll bet I would at get to explain my story to the guys in the black SUVs.

Los Alamos – Plutonium Center of Negligence

An October 27 press release from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO)
Defense Board Catches Los Alamos Trying to Dodge Plutonium Safety Vulnerability” revolves around a new Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) revelation of public safety vulnerability and seismic issues at TA-55 (The Lab’s plutonium Technical Area).

The DNFSB has been very patient on the safety issues at TA-55. In a September 23, 2005 weekly report, they stated that LANL needed to try to justify a passive confinement strategy, continue plans to reduce radioactive materials, and to seismically upgrade the glove-box supports that have not already been upgraded. These issues are still unaddressed as of the latest DNFSB report.

Seismic issues run deep at Los Alamos. NNSA currently has plans to construct and operate the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement–Nuclear Facility (CMRR–NF) to support plutonium operations as a replacement for portions of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility, a 1950’s structure that faces significant safety and seismic challenges. In 1999, a fault was discovered under the old CMR building, which has been neglected, contaminated, and has several abandoned wings. This fault was the major reason given to build a new facility 1.2 miles away at TA-55.

The Lab has big plans for plutonium. In December 2008, NNSA released a Record of Decision for its Complex Transformation Environmental Impact Statement that keeps manufacturing and research and development involving plutonium at Los Alamos and blesses the building of the CMRR-NF. This decision was a combination of two alternatives – a Distributed Centers of Excellence and a Capability-Based alternative. But to compensate for the nearby fault lines, the CMRR-NF is now being designed with 10-foot thick concrete floors and there are plans being designed to pump grout into a layer of fragile volcanic ash under the proposed facility. Current construction estimates for this facility are $2 billion.

The Lab has been negligent in taking care of its plutonium flagship, TA-55. It has not been a good steward of plutonium missions. Los Alamos is the wrong location, seismically. Congress must seriously consider ending this unnecessary plutonium work.

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