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Report finds fire-safety deficiencies at LANL

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2016 11:15 pm | Updated: 11:16 pm, Fri May 20, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

Deficiencies in a fire suppression system at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility would pose a threat to workers and nearby residents if a seismic disaster hits the area, according to a federal report issued earlier this year.

An inspection conducted in November 2015 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board on national lab buildings for the president and the U.S. Department of Energy, found that the fire-safety system needs a major overhaul or replacement before the plutonium processing plant, known as PF-4, can be considered fire-proof during an earthquake.

Last week, Administrator Frank Klotz of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab’s management contractor, was notified of the advisory board’s findings and instructed to conduct an assessment within 90 days. But so far, the board says, the lab has failed to assess the fire suppression system’s safety issues — and also has failed to correct other problems discovered in previous inspections.

Lab and NNSA officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the report.

The lab’s operator, Los Alamos National Securities LLC, a consortium that includes the University of California, Bechtel Corp., Babcock & Wilcox Co., URS Corp. and AECOM, was told in December that it would not be awarded a new contract following a series of significant safety shortfalls. The management contract was set to expire in September 2017, but last month the NNSA announced a one-year extension to give the federal government enough time to award a new contract.

There have long been concerns about whether lab facilities would be able to withstand an earthquake. Fault lines lie beneath lab property, and studies of their potential impact date back to 1972. LANL scientists have estimated a potential quake in the area could reach magnitude 7.8.

At least $173 million in federal funds was spent over a decade improving aging infrastructure and security systems at PF-4, but in 2012, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board found that safety concerns still remained.

The November investigation reached a similar conclusion. Thousands of brittle, cast-iron pieces used in piping were found insufficient to withstand an earthquake. Investigators also found that the plutonium plant’s ceiling could collapse in an earthquake, the building lacks a secure water flow and an inadequate ventilation system hasn’t been addressed because of budget constraints.

And because Los Alamos National Securities LLC hasn’t conducted its own assessment, the report says, the board couldn’t determine whether the facility has an adequate number of fire sprinklers.

The board previously has said that an earthquake could cause a radiation leak from the facility, which would pose health threats to the surrounding community — such as the nearby Royal Crest mobile home park.

Despite these shortcomings, the lab announced in December that operations at PF-4 have resumed, with plans to continue production of plutonium pits — the triggers for nuclear weapons — by the end of the year. The facility had been closed since 2013 as a result of safety concerns.

Boosting pit production to update the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile has been mandated by Congress, which last year approved an increase to 80 pits per year by 2030. Between 2007 and 2013, the lab produced just 30 pits.

Greg Mello, the director of Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear security watchdog, said the fire-safety deficiencies at the plutonium plant speak to larger issues at the lab. “Management is in denial about the total scope of the problems and whether they can get away with leaving them unfixed,” he said in an interview with The New Mexican.

He said the total cost of seismic upgrades has still to be assessed.

“This throws a very harsh light on NNSA’s plans for an underground annex to PF-4 for manufacturing warhead cores,” he added. “Going forward, that is the operative lesson: NNSA is not ready for another factory building at Los Alamos when they can’t operate the one they have safely.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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