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LA Monitor

Existing facilities could be option for further plutonium work

By The Staff
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm

(Second of a series)

During his talk in Washington last week, Jonathan Medalia, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy for the Congressional Research Service, talked about existing buildings in relation to pit production.

Medalia said other sites away from LANL could be used including Livermore, Idaho and Savannah. Then he discussed the pros and cons of LANL’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4) and the Radiological Laboratory-Utility-Office Building, which was completed in 2010.

A source said the idea of using existing facilities is nothing new and the lab actually has been doing that very thing.

RLUOB has 19,500 square feet of lab space, plus office space. But as a Radiological Facility, it is permitted to hold 38.6 grams (plutonium) Pu-239E. WGPu (weapons-grade plutonium) is more radioactive than pure Pu-239.

“The utility basement and the laboratory floor above it are made of heavily-reinforced concrete, while the office floors are built to the standards of an emergency response building like a fire station, so RLUOB is much more seismically robust than CMR (Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building). LANL estimates the cost of moving AC and related work from CMR to RLUOB and PF-4 to be $800 million,” he said.

There are at least three options for RLUOB. One is to use it as is for analytical chemistry (AC). The catch is that, as a Radiological Facility, 26 grams of WGPu is nowhere near the 500 to 1,000 grams needed for the AC to support 80 pits per year (ppy).

A second option is to convert RLUOB to Hazard Category-3. This would involve lots of studies and Los Alamos listed about 100 of them, according to Medalia.

Some of these studies could lead to physical modifications of RLUOB. Medalia said this option may be feasible, though it is unclear if conducting studies and retrofitting modifications would be less expensive than building a new RLUOB, minus the office floors.

A third option is RLUOB with regulatory relief. The reason for high building standards and limits on radioactive material is to keep the radiation dose to workers and the public in an accident below DOE guidelines.

Medalia said that LANL calculated the dose if RLUOB, with 1,000 grams of WGPu, collapsed in an earthquake and a fire dispersed the plutonium. The dose would be far below the guideline. On the other hand, relaxing standards for one building could set a precedent for doing so for other projects, Medalia said.

Medalia said several potential paths might reach 80 ppy. Modules could contain a pit foundry and a Pu-238 line at less cost than a large building, leaving space in PF-4 and RLUOB for AC. Other options hold the possibility of producing 80 ppy while avoiding new buildings, minimizing environmental impact, and holding down schedule and cost.

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