Los Alamos lab sees two mishaps in a week

The water spill should be a reminder that the plutonium facility’s work is done by people, and people make mistakes, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

“Pit production will place a real time-pressure crunch on the workers and lead to more accidents,” Kovac said.

“It should lead us to consider the consequences if someone left a plutonium furnace on or something that could endanger the public…these kinds of missteps are likely to increase as the lab ramps up production of plutonium pits used to trigger nuclear warheads. Current plans call for the lab to make 30 of the nuclear bomb cores a year by 2026,”

| santafenewmexican.com April 26, 2021

Los Alamos National Laboratory had two mishaps in one week: a glove box breach that contaminated workers’ protective equipment and a spill of 1,800 gallons of water into a vault corridor after an employee left a valve open.

The incidents were the latest in a series of accidents in recent months at the lab, as reported by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

In the board’s most recent report, an alarm sounded March 29 when a worker tore a protective glove attached to a sealed compartment known as a glove box while handling a piece of plutonium.

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The tear caused two workers’ protective equipment to become contaminated, but tests showed the workers didn’t breathe in radiation, a lab spokesman wrote in an email.

“Surveys, air monitoring and nasal swipes indicate no further spread of contamination or [workers’] intake of radioactive materials,” he wrote. “There was no risk to the public or the environment.”

The lab is conducting a fact-finding probe to learn more about how the glove was ripped and identify further corrective actions, he added.

The report notes a worker talked of how efforts to improve tooling in the glove box created a “sharps hazard,” a term for any item in the sealed compartment that can rip a hole in a glove. The lab’s management is reviewing the tooling, the report said.

Two days after the glove box incident, a worker adding water to the lab’s vault baths — used to cool certain plutonium containers — jammed open a spring-closed valve and then left for another task. Water poured through the valve, causing the baths to overflow.

The spilling water triggered an alarm, but an internal communications system failed to transmit it to the operations center, the report said. A worker discovered water flowing into the vault corridor several hours later.

A water test showed the 1,800-gallon spill did not spread radioactive contamination through the facility and posed no immediate threat, the report said.

“The overflow water was successfully removed and operations returned to normal,” the lab spokesman wrote in an email.

However, the report indicated managers were concerned about the alarm not being relayed to the operations center. They also were looking at adding an overflow line to a sump and were reviewing fill procedures.

The water spill should be a reminder that the plutonium facility’s work is done by people, and people make mistakes, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

“It should lead us to consider the consequences if someone left a plutonium furnace on or something that could endanger the public,” Kovac said.

The latest glove box breach is less serious than one in February that released a high level of radioactive material — enough to contaminate six workers’ protective equipment and three of the workers’ skin.

“During decontamination activities, a continuous air monitor alarmed in the decontamination room,” the safety board’s March 5 report said. “There was also a continuous air monitor alarm in the original laboratory room.”

Last year, a similarly breached glove box led to 15 workers being tested for radiation exposure. The employee who worked with the torn glove was the only one who tested positive.

In late February, sparks flew from a waste container at the lab.

Investigators learned that a metal object had torn a plastic bag containing two HEPA filters that had fragments from titanium welding done inside a glove box. Air entering the torn bag oxidized the metallic dust, causing the sparking.

Both the lab and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site in Carlsbad, were evacuated because both sites had more drums with similar contents.

Kovac said these kinds of missteps are likely to increase as the lab ramps up production of plutonium pits used to trigger nuclear warheads. Current plans call for the lab to make 30 of the nuclear bomb cores a year by 2026.

“Pit production will place a real time-pressure crunch on the workers and lead to more accidents,” Kovac said.

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