Doubts about Los Alamos Safety Program

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 @ 04:11 PM gHale

Questions regarding safety procedures at Los Alamos National Laboratory continue to fly.

Memos from an official with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the northern New Mexico lab has repeatedly missed deadlines to fix nuclear safety problems. Having said that, there are no immediate nuclear dangers at the lab, according to a published report.

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The memos went out to the lab in September by C.H. Keilers Jr., the top nuclear safety official with NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office. They address a number of systems intended to reduce risk, including procedures aimed at preventing inadvertent nuclear chain reactions.

The problems affect the lab’s main plutonium complex, where they make nuclear weapons parts, and a group of facilities that handles nuclear waste.

While the problems outlined in the memos have lingered for years, Keilers said the basic issue was complacency and overconfidence on the part of workers.

The lab is taking steps to fix the problems, said Charlie Anderson, the lab’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations.

Los Alamos is the nation’s primary center for work with plutonium. Much of the work, including the manufacture of some nuclear weapons parts, occurs in the lab’s Technical Area 55 Plutonium Facility, a large concrete bunker known as PF-4.

They work with plutonium in boxes with sealed portholes, where heavy gloves allow researchers and technicians to work with the radioactive metal without being directly exposed.

One of the letters said problems at the facility “have called into question the effectiveness of the conduct of operations and criticality safety programs.”

Questions also raised about the adequacy of the fire protection system at a facility that packages radioactive waste for off-site shipment, inadequate lightning protection in large tent-like structures where they store radioactive waste and whether the power supply systems in one of the lab’s nuclear facilities can withstand an earthquake.

These were among “an inordinately large” number of problems identified in the lab’s major nuclear waste handling facilities, according to the NNSA memos.

The most serious criticism pointed at criticality safety programs. Criticality happens when too much of particular types of nuclear material, including plutonium, come together in a small space. When that happens, a nuclear chain reaction can result, releasing a dangerous burst of radiation. The primary danger is exposing the scientists and technicians in the room to radiation.

The memos cite 23 “criticality infractions” last year in the PF-4 bunker, and the trend continued this year.

Anderson said the problems cited by the NNSA involve efforts to improve the lab’s existing criticality safety program.

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