Saturday, April 16, 2011
A new study of potential
damage from an earthquake to a Los Alamos National Laboratory
plutonium facility shows "that a large earthquake that might
occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause
significant damage to some parts of the facility," the lab
"Everyone at Los Alamos is committed to the safety of our
workforce, our facilities, and the community we call home," Bob
McQuinn, associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations,
said in a statement released by the lab.
"While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to
improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility
improvement activities. As we develop our plan to strengthen the
structure, we will tackle those physical updates that provide the
largest contributions to facility safety first."
Los Alamos sits atop mesas laced with faults,
making seismic risk a safety issue.
Friday's announcement said LANL's Seismic Analysis of Facilities and
Evaluation of Risk (SAFER) Project has been conducting a multiyear
analysis of the seismic design loads on every existing facility at
lab "self-reported" to the National Nuclear Security
Administration a new preliminary analysis of the structural load
capacities at Plutonium Facility-4 at LANL's Technical Area 55.
TA-55 is about a mile from the Laboratory's
main technical area and administrative hub and covers about four
acres. The TA-55 complex began operations in 1978 and is comprised of
several buildings, including the 150,000-square-foot PF-4 plutonium
PF-4 is used for plutonium manufacturing, stockpile surveillance,
plutonium disposition, plutonium heat source fabrication for
deep-space NASA missions, and a variety of nuclear materials research
and development programs.
Greg Mello, of the LANL watchdog group Los Alamos Study Group, said
in an email that the new study "is a big deal." He said he
recently spoke to a senior NNSA official "who offered the
opinion that PF-4 would 'never' meet modern seismic and safety
new analysis incorporates new geological data and sophisticated
computer modeling. In addition to citing the potential for
significant quake damage to PF-4, the analysis "identified areas
of the facility that if strengthened could increase its seismic
response capability and would reduce the potential impact on the
facility even under worst-case seismic conditions," the lab
comprehensive seismic hazard analysis has been under way for several
years to provide a better understanding of the stresses on the PF-4
structure and how it might react during any seismic event," the
has started upgrades to the fire suppression system, air handling and
filtration systems and storage infrastructure.
Seismic safety has been a point of discussion
as plans have moved forward in recent years for a new, multi-billion
dollar plutonium complex at Los Alamos. In February, an official with
the Defense Nuclear Safety Board questioned whether the federal
government was backing away from safety commitments intended to
prevent plutonium from leaking in the event of an earthquake or
federal safety auditors praised steps taken by LANL to reduce risks
from a worst-case earthquake fire scenario at the aging Chemistry and
Metallurgy Research Building, which the new project would replace.