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For immediate release May 20, 2014

Federal Safety Board Cautions DOE on LANL Plutonium Facility

Main plutonium facility might "collapse" in earthquake unless repairs are completed; scope of work needed still unknown

Board says full re-start of LANL plutonium facility premature; nuclear criticality accidents not ruled out

On May 16, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB, Board), cautioned Congress about the structural integrity of the main plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the event of an earthquake similar to those which have rocked the site in recent millenia.  The building in question, "PF-4," was built in 1978 to earlier, less stringent earthquake standards. 

The Board was established by Congress in 1988 to advise the Department of Energy (DOE) on the safety of DOE's nuclear facilities. 

Also on the 16th, DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur wrote National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Frank Klotz about the Board's concerns regarding LANL's planned re-start of higher-hazard plutonium operations in PF-4 without first evaluating the potential of those operations to result in nuclear criticality accidents.  Such accidents, were they to occur as a result of human error, mechanical failure or any other cause, would invariably involve very high levels of radiation and have often been fatal to surrounding workers.  Such accidents have happened before at LANL and at other nuclear facilities in the U.S. and abroad.  (See for example this LANL review.) 

Regarding the first issue DNFSB writes in its "Report to Congress on the Status of Significant Safety Issues Concerning the Design and Construction of DOE’s Defense Nuclear Facilities" that:

...the Board remains concerned that PF-4 is vulnerable to seismic collapse. The large plutonium inventory of PF-4, coupled with the facility's proximity to the public, creates the potential for high off-site radiological consequences. DOE is pursuing actions to address the collapse vulnerability, but maintains that PF-4 is safe to operate in the interim and complies with DOE standards for seismic performance. The Board communicated to DOE in a letter dated July 17, 2013, that it does not agree...
...the Secretary of Energy transmitted a letter to the Board on March 27, 2013, stating that PF-4 was safe for continued operation based on the current structural analysis. The Board replied in a July 17, 2013, letter to the Secretary of Energy, stating that it did not agree...the Board was encouraged by DOE's decision to conduct the alternate analysis using a second modeling approach that the Board believes is essential to ensure that all seismic vulnerabilities and necessary structural upgrades are identified to prevent the collapse of PF-4...NNSA recently informed the Board that completion [of further analysis] is estimated for June 2014. The Board intends to use the outcome of this analysis to guide its future actions.

LANL has strengthened some structural components of PF-4 already and has anchored its equipment better.  Additional needed work has been identified and a congressional construction line item is underway but the total scope of work required is still not known.  The forthcoming analysis will provide the engineering basis for further upgrades.  These must be designed, costs developed for them, funds reprogrammed (or requested and appropriated), and then the work must be successfully done. 

DOE still has several tens of millions of dollars in unspent funds from prior years in its indefinitely-deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) project (reprogramming background here), which was to be built adjacent to PF-4, as well as unspent funds from prior years in other accounts. 

The Los Alamos Study Group meets with the Board approximately four times each year.  Over the past several years one of the Study Group's main concerns has been closure of long-standing safety issues at PF-4.  The Study Group has urged the rapid and complete resolution of outstanding structural and operational issues.  Board members and staff have assured us that the kinds of structural upgrades now being contemplated at PF-4 are practical and affordable. 

Some further background on the PF-4 seismic issue can be found here.  (Please contact this office for further information and background.)  LANL's understanding of its significant seismic risk at TA-55 reached maturity over the 1997 to 2007 decade.  (Our 1997 paper based on then-recent LANL studies, sans maps, is here.)

On the second issue arising today, the DNFSB is also concerned about re-starting higher-risk operations at PF-4 without first complying with DOE's own safety rules concerning criticality safety -- which LANL is currently planning to do.  In his letter to Administrator Klotz, Dr. Winokur said:

On June 27, 2013, the LANL Director paused programmatic operations in the Plutonium Facility, in part, to enable laboratory management to address nuclear criticality safety concerns identified by both internal and external assessments. During this pause, NNSA briefed the Board on a strategy to develop criticality safety evaluations (CSE) for higher-risk operations prior to resumption. The Board is aware that this plan has evolved such that the LANL Director intends to resume many higher-risk operations without first developing compliant CSEs.
Department of Energy directives and industry consensus standards require that CSEs unambiguously demonstrate how fissionable material operations will remain subcritical under both normal and credible abnormal conditions. These CSEs identify controls to ensure safe operation. Therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2286b(d), the Board requests a briefing from NNSA within 14 days on how the NNSA will ensure that adequate controls will be identified as the laboratory resumes higher-risk operations in the Plutonium Facility.

Recently, plutonium waste drums from LANL were discovered to have been filled with incompatible materials, causing an unplanned chemical reaction in one or more drums with considerable release of heat, bursting of at least one drum and expulsion of plutonium, contamination of underground facilities at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), plutonium uptake by twenty-two workers, and shutdown of WIPP, potentially for as long as three years.  Potentially unstable transuranic waste from LANL has already been shipped to Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, TX, where it now sits, and more of it is stored at LANL.  The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has issued an imminent and substantial endangerment order (Associated Press article). 

NNSA's most recent (December 2013) evaluation of LANL's contract performance resulted in the loss of a year's contract extension (fee determination letter; more detailed Performance Evaluation Report, PER).  One reason for the loss of award term was NNSA's negative evaluation of LANL's criticality safety program, which has been stumbling since at least 2008.  Criticality safety violations began increasing early last year, leading to the June 28 2013 shutdown, which still continues for some operations. 

For Criticality Safety, the stability and long-term viability of the program is in question, which has adversely impacted Laboratory nuclear operations at Plutonium Facility 4 and at the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility; and which could impact Nevada Nuclear Security Site nuclear operations. Management inattention and delay early in the fiscal year contributed to a persistent downward trend in this area and threaten long-term program viability. Weaknesses in the program contributed to conditions leading to the Plutonium Facility 4 (PF-4) pause in programmatic operations and are rate-limiting PF-4 resumption.  (FY2013 PER, p. 22, emphasis added)

Study Group director Greg Mello: "There are systemic management problems with safety at LANL, as we see in these communications from DNFSB and NNSA -- the latter resulting in a significant penalty.  We have no final report on the recent LANL-caused WIPP accident but it is clear that supervision at LANL was poor or inadequate. 

"Instead of adequately addressing its current problems, LANL has been working behind the scenes in Congress to grease the skids for building "small" additional plutonium facilities, with "small" definitely in quotes.  At the same time LANL has not been able to answer basic questions about how much space is really needed for the programs in question  -- principally manufacturing of plutonium pits -- and whether that space is not actually already present in existing facilities.  Now again we are reminded that management of LANL's existing plutonium facility is inadequate. 

"There will always be one or another safety problem or inadequacy.  That's routine and is part of the oversight process.  What should never be normal is for really severe deficiencies -- and that's what these are -- to persist for years.  We want them fixed!  It's not fair to workers, it's not fair to the public, and it's not fair to taxpayers.  LANL keeps trying to cut corners but as we have recently seen at WIPP, a seemingly "small" LANL mistake had pretty severe consequences. 

"It's also the attitude we see in these persistent problems that is dangerous.  Just as NNSA said, this ongoing management lapse threatens the "viability" of LANL's plutonium programs.  Those programs are too many and too big, we believe -- pit production for the stockpile is not necessary, and neither is production of plutonium dioxide for reactor fuel, which nobody wants and rightly so -- but surely even hawks will understand that one serious accident at PF-4 would shut down the nation's main plutonium facility, possibly indefinitely." 


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