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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

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A Year After Pausing Plutonium Operations, Two-Thirds of Los Alamos PF-4 Work Back Up

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor
7/3/2014


Los Alamos National Laboratory has resumed about two-thirds of work at its Plutonium Facility after operations
were shut down a year ago due to criticality safety and conduct of operations issues, a senior laboratory official
said this week, but there is no clear timetable for a full resumption of activities. A recently released May 30
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board site representative report suggested that a “large number” of fissile
material operations were slated to be restarted before the end of June, noting that a “war room” had been
established to support seven-day-a-week efforts to restart operations in the facility. In addition to the work that has
been restarted, the lab official said “many more are in the normal resumption process, to include internal and
external readiness assessments for activities that have been substantially improved or are undergoing significant
equipment upgrades.”

The lab would not offer any more specifics about what operations remain shut down, but the official hinted that a
return to full operations could come soon. “The NNSA Headquarters and Field Office criticality safety experts
worked together with us to tackle the most challenging issues and are well on our way to completing all
resumption activities in the near-term,” the official said. The official cautioned, however, that the lab is not
operating on a timetable. “We are taking our time and we’re doing it right,” the official said. “We’re not up against a
calendar.”

PF-4 Operations Halted Last June

The lab announced a full pause of operations at the Plutonium Facility last June, and has gradually restarted
operations over the last six months as it corrects a multitude of issues found to have been plaguing the facility.
Earlier this year, a DNFSB report summarizing an internal review provided some insight into the widespread
problems that led to the shutdown, revealing an operational culture at the facility that was “reactive, rather than
executing to a strategic plan with prioritized actions.” The Board report said issues found in criticality safety
events were not investigated to reveal issues and corrective actions, including improvements needed in
management. The report also said that poor communication “reflects insufficient management attention to the
causes of infractions and needed corrective actions.”

The report said that roles and responsibilities are not consistent, unclear requirements and terminology haven’t
been fixed, documented hazard analyses failed to note collocated hazards and controls, the critique process and
output is inadequate to create improvements, internal assessments fail to discover and fix problems, corrective
actions are vague and short-sighted, and lessons learned data “does not provide clear operational insight, nor is it
adequately communicated and implemented.”

Criticality Safety Infractions Were On the Rise

There was a drastic uptick in the amount of criticality safety infractions at Los Alamos National Laboratory
preceding a decision to pause work at the facility, with 15 criticality safety infractions during the first six months of
2013, nearly equal to the amount in 2011 (16) and 2012 (15), according to the DNFSB. Operations were initially
paused in one room in PF-4 where DNFSB staff identified nuclear materials stored in a lab workstation in violation
of Criticality Safety Evaluation Guidelines, but Los Alamos Director Charlie McMillan expanded the pause to the
entire facility due to widespread concerns. “Because of the nature and importance of the work we do, we must
regularly assess all aspects of our operations to ensure we are executing our procedures and operational
processes appropriately,” McMillan wrote in an email to lab staff in June of last year.

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, McMillan said the lab was “making
significant progress in resolving the criticality safety concerns at our plutonium facility that caused us to pause
operations.” He added, “We have improved our criticality safety posture and are in the process of resuming our
important activities and deliverables.”


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