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Federal study: U.S. nuke labs unprepared for catastrophe

Posted: Saturday, September 13, 2014 7:00 pm | Updated: 12:20 am, Sun Sep 14, 2014.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican

The nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories are woefully unprepared to respond to emergencies, from small radiation leaks to large-scale disasters like the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan, according to a sweeping new federal study.

The study, released this month by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, looked at 17 sites across the country over the last three years, including three in New Mexico — Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

The report points to the three New Mexico sites as examples of various gaps in emergency readiness endemic throughout the nation’s nuclear defense system. The troubling assessment also comes as Energy and Defense department officials are considering sharply ramping up production of nuclear weapons components at Los Alamos and Sandia.

Safety and regulatory problems at the nuclear facilities have been under a harsh spotlight in recent months after a drum containing radioactive waste from Los Alamos burst in an underground cavern at WIPP where it was stored. The Feb. 14 accident exposed more than 20 workers to radiation and shut down shipments of waste to the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository. The rupture came just days after a truck caught fire at the facility.

The Sept. 2 report to U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz represents the first of its kind in 15 years. It draws on emergency response lessons learned from disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the earthquake-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station to point out deficiencies in emergency preparedness at American nuclear facilities.

“DOE has not comprehensively and consistently demonstrated its ability to protect the worker and the public in the event of an emergency,” the report said. Such shortfalls, it added, were “clearly evidenced by the truck fire and radioactive material release events at WIPP.”

The cause of the chemical reaction that triggered the release at WIPP remains under investigation. A report issued in April by the Department of Energy’s Accident Investigation Board documented a long list of emergency readiness shortcomings.

The accident investigation identified weaknesses in WIPP’s response, beginning with the reluctance of personnel to acknowledge the first signs of the radiation release. Investigators blamed inadequate safety training and emergency planning and lax Energy Department oversight for a series of missteps throughout the 10-hour initial reaction to the event.

“Many of the site-specific issues noted at WIPP are prevalent at other sites with defense nuclear facilities,” the safety board said in its new assessment.

Emergency planners at the lab in Los Alamos erred by establishing response plans based on worst-case scenarios and limiting readiness for less catastrophic but still dangerous circumstances, according to the report.

“When decision makers know that the release is less severe than the worst case accident, they may be reluctant to implement conservative protection actions, particularly those that involve the public,” the report said.

Blind spots at LANL created by myopic planning for only the worst disasters “would not lead to the initiation of protective actions for accidents of a lesser degree,” the assessment found. The report identified similar deficiencies at Sandia.

Throughout the national nuclear weapons complex, emergency action plans “were too generic to be effective,” according to the report.

Last year, the safety board reviewed hazards and threats considered during emergency planning at Sandia National Laboratories and found them to be incomplete, a shortcoming shared at WIPP that the radiation leak there exposed, according to the report.

Emergency readiness drills at Sandia also earned low marks in the assessment.

“The drills involving facility personnel are only evacuation drills and are essentially the equivalent of fire drills,” the report said.

Assessors further criticized Sandia for not conducting simulated emergency exercises at all of the on-site facilities.

“At [Sandia National Laboratories], the staff team was particularly concerned that emergency management personnel are not scheduling drills and exercises that address the different types of hazards and accident scenarios possible at its nuclear facility,” the report said. “The drills and exercises should train and test the various elements of their capability for responding to radiological hazards and scenarios.”

During a review of safety at Sandia last year, a federal assessment team revisited findings from a 2009 safety report that identified poor execution of emergency plans by response personnel. Assessors blamed poorly drafted emergency response procedures for the weaknesses.

“The staff found them to be of poor quality and difficult to implement,” according to the report.

Sandia responded to the finding by reporting that it had corrected the deficiencies, but the federal assessors found that claim to be untrue.

“The staff team found that the original problems … still existed,” according to the report. “[Sandia National Laboratories] did not address the implications of the systemic program weaknesses identified.”

Oversight of contractors’ emergency readiness also proved to be weak at Sandia and WIPP, according to the report.

“Based on its review of numerous contractor assessment reports, the staff team observed that many of the assessments were not effective at identifying problems and weaknesses with their programs,” the report said.

After reviewing a draft copy of the report last month, Moniz vowed to fix the most disturbing deficiencies within a year.

“DOE agrees that actions are needed to improve emergency preparedness and response capabilities at its defense nuclear facilities,” Moniz wrote in a letter to the safety board.

A Los Alamos spokesman declined to comment about the report’s findings, deferring to Moniz’s letter.

The report comes as federal officials are actively seeking to step up production of components to replace aging bomb parts in the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

Los Alamos stands to significantly boost production of plutonium pits, the small nuclear bombs that detonate full-scale weapons. Congressional budget documents outline a plan to produce up to 80 triggers annually at Los Alamos within 15 years. In the quarter-century since the Cold War ended, no more than 11 have been built in a single year.

Plutonium Facility 4 at Los Alamos, a 36-year-old building on a seismically active fault with structural vulnerabilities that prompted the lab to close it more than a year ago, would be home to the stepped-up pit production.

The building needs extensive modifications to safely house the 1,760 grams of plutonium required for expanded pit production, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. Currently, it safely holds up to 26 grams of plutonium.

“Progress has been made over the summer toward resuming activities in PF-4 and we continue to work on resuming the remaining activities as quickly and safely as possible,” said LANL spokesman Kevin Roark.

With an eye on safety improvements to the building “that supports a long-term plutonium mission at the laboratory,” Los Alamos wants to tackle the new campaign as soon as possible, he said.

Sandia aims to ramp up its production of replacement components for nuclear weapons as well.

Last year, Sandia produced about 600 neutron generators that prime nuclear weapons triggers for detonation. Within two years, the National Nuclear Safety Administration expects a 50 percent increase in production of neutron generators at Sandia to 900 per year, according to a recent report by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General.

“We’re confident we can do it,” Sandia spokesman Jim Danneskiold said. “ … This is a fairly big increase in production, and Sandia is aware it’s a big increase.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.


Greg Mello comment published:

It's good that the New Mexican has begun to walk back the widespread ignorance about what it is that LANL does and hopes to do. Even within LANL there is reluctance to accept, and ignorance about, the extent of its high-hazard nuclear industrial operations, and the scale of the lab's aspirations in that area.

According to NNSA there are currently 4 metric tons or 4 million grams, not 26 grams, of weapons-grade plutonium at LANL. Of this, 1,800 kilograms, or 1.8 million grams, are allowed to be in vulnerable locations in the main plutonium building at any given time. It is expected that this figure will rise to 2.6 metric tons after completing seismic upgrades. However, most of the high-mass operations in the building have been shut down since June 2013 because of long-standing safety concerns. Of the suspended operations, most require special federal safety reviews to restart, a process which will not begin until next year and will not end, at the earliest by this time next year. In other words, that building will be wholly or partially shut down for more than 2 years because of safety mismanagement.

The situation highlighted by the (purely advisory) safety board has been simmering for a long time here and elsewhere. We now know that LANL's lack of care caused the WIPP shutdown. Last week's order is part of a larger federal struggle to bring more safety professionalism to the privately-run site.


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