Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

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LANL loses track of nuclear materials

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.new green atom

 

 

 

 

 

The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board Report is here.

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.

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.