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"Forget the Rest" blog

For immediate release 10/27/09

Defense Safety Board Strongly Criticizes Seismic Safety at Los Alamos Plutonium Facility

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200

In an unusually strong recommendation (pdf), the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has criticized the state of seismic safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) main plutonium facility, Building PF-4 in Technical Area (TA)-55.

This is only the second official recommendation on any subject from the Board this year.

Due to “the severity of the problems” at PF-4, the Board requires quarterly responses over the next 12 months and suggests that if necessary Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu act under Atomic Energy Act to promptly implement short- as well as long-term remedies.

The Board finds that the mitigated (not: unmitigated) consequences off site of a seismic event and subsequent fire at PF-4 are more than 100 times the applicable DOE evaluation guideline for offsite whole-body radiation, which is 25 rem over a period of a few hours.  These are NNSA modeling results.

Like most official Board communications, this one – at just 2½ pages – is a model of concision and clarity.  I will not attempt to summarize its main points here but rather urge all interested parties to read it carefully.

Predicted doses would be less at downwind population centers such as the village of White Rock, the town of Los Alamos, and elsewhere.  Significant plutonium deposition, creating longer-term risks and incurring cleanup costs, may extend much farther downwind under some conditions.

The postulated accident would create higher doses than this to any exposed individuals on the LANL site who were exposed downwind.  Prompt evacuation of these areas would be essential.  Downwind LANL facilities would be contaminated and require extensive cleanup.  This might not be economical, especially if there were also structural or other earthquake damage, which is likely.  LANL, in other words, could be shut down for a long time and might not be worth rebuilding.

The inadequacy of the safety situation at PF-4 in general, and its seismic safety in particular, have long been a concern of this organization and we have brought up this issue in meetings with the Board in Washington, DC and in Los Alamos on multiple occasions in the past three years.

As the Board’s Recommendation notes, the present situation has been a long time in development.

The Board’s Recommendation does not mention that PF-4, along with other LANL nuclear facilities, has been operating under a so-called “Justification for Continued Operation” (JCO), which is a memorandum NNSA writes to itself explaining why it does not need for follow federal nuclear safety regulations – in LANL’s case seismic safety regulations.  NNSA recently granted itself an extension to its JCO.

The resolution of seismic safety issues at PF-4 is almost completely unrelated to the planned Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility.  There is no known opposition to the continued safe operation of PF-4 as a plutonium facility under all stockpile management scenarios.  A construction project called the “TA-55 Reinvestment Project” (NNSA Project 08-D-804) is a catch-all for the larger planned capital renewal projects at PF-4. [1]

The Manager of the Los Alamos Site Office (LASO), Donald Winchell, who has with his staff been responsible for development and maintenance of the seismic safety response at PF-4, said in August that the Board “may have outlived its usefulness to the country.”

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board “may have outlived its usefulness to the country,” the National Nuclear Security Administration’s top official at Los Alamos National Laboratory told NW&M Monitor earlier this month. Though NNSA Los Alamos Site Office Manager Donald Winchell later added that he does believe the Board will continue to play an important role in regulating [sic – DNFSB advises, not regulates] the NNSA, his comments illustrate the growing sense at NNSA and the  Department of Energy as a whole that the Board has pushed the agency toward expensive changes and a “risk averse” culture—a fact that has led Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to take a hard look at streamlining oversight and re-evaluating DOE’s relationship to the Board. “What’s their role? They have no responsibility in this game other than to sit back and tell us what we’re doing wrong,” he said. (Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, 8/31/09)

Study Group Director Mello: “None of the serious problems that have coalesced into yesterday’s strong recommendation are new.  The Board has been, it seems to me, the soul of patience in regard to PF-4.  In our judgment the Board has never, and is not in this case, pushing NNSA toward unnecessary expenses and an unnecessarily “risk-averse” culture.  The Board would like LANL to meet the same standards that are required in the civilian nuclear power industry, standards which are usually met at other DOE sites.

“Operations at LANL’s plutonium facility do not now, and may have never, met federal standards.  For many years this facility’s operations have been supported by a scrim of variances and allowances, not actual compliance with DOE’s regulations.

“The Board is rejecting what might be called the ‘heroic’ mode of operation which characterized the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War.  Make no mistake: that mode is still the normative condition assumed by many Cold War managers.  Many nuclear hawks want it back.

“Congress created the Safety Board to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Thousands of people were sickened fighting the Cold War at these facilities and many workers died, as did an unknown large number of down-winders.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on cleanup.  A seismic-generated fire at TA-55 – by no means the only possible very bad unplanned event at LANL, as DOE well knows – could have permanent consequences for thousands of people, especially in Los Alamos County but also in Santa Fe County.   The Board is acting with the highest professionalism to fulfill its legal mandate to prevent such a catastrophe.”

“Whether NNSA wants to or not, the agency needs to dip into current operating funds, which are more than ample, to fix up PF-4.  As I believe most if not all parties now realize, there is no need for active stockpile pit production, so the time is certainly ripe.”


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