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Weapons Complex Monitor

Vol. 28 No. 6

February 10, 2017

LANL’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program Falls Short of DOE Expectations

By Alissa Tabirian

The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s nuclear criticality safety program in fiscal 2016 fell short of Department of Energy requirements, but an improvement plan has been established, according to an annual nuclear criticality safety program metrics report submitted to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).

The DNFSB asked DOE in February 2016 to provide a yearly nuclear criticality safety criteria metrics table, encompassing information about relevant sites including the number of criticality safety infractions,the number of noncompliances with DOE criticality safety standards, the number of contractor and federal criticality safety assessments completed, current contractor and federal criticality safety staffing levels, and the department’s evaluation of overall contractor performance in this area.

The report covers facilities overseen by DOE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration and the Offices of Science and Environmental Management. Of those, only Los Alamos earned a “red” grade – “does not meet expectations” – in the table on criticality safety infractions and program noncompliances.

The table identified a set of criticality safety infractions at the NNSA nuclear weapons lab: 17 were designated as Level 5, six as Level 4, and one as Level 3. Energy Department sites usually consider Level 4 and 5 infractions the least severe, while Level 3 is generally for situations with one barrier to criticality, Level 2 a near miss, and Level 1 an accident. A criticality event would involve an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction resulting in radiation release.

Los Alamos also had 21 contractor-identified and three externally identified program instances of noncompliance in fiscal 2016, which ended on Sept. 30 of last year, the report said. It noted that the site’s criticality program “remains noncompliant in several areas and compensatory measures remain in place to ensure safety in operations,” and that the overall rating would be “adequate but needs improvement” if the program were compared against program improvement goals rather than against program requirements.

“A program improvement plan is in place and progress is closely monitored by the Field Office,” the table said about the lab.

Los Alamos has taken a number of steps to address the problem, lab spokesman Kevin Roark said by email. These include: implementing new criticality safety controls, providing enhanced training to management and staff, improving operating procedures that implement criticality controls, validating that procedures can be used exactly as written, ensuring relevant documents are readily available to operators, and increasing staffing levels.

The report noted there were three contractor assessments and three federal assessments of the Los Alamos criticality safety program in fiscal 2016 – the first yielded three findings, or observations requiring a corrective action plan, and the second yielded four.

Los Alamos had nine qualified contractor staff members to perform criticality safety work, which was not enough to meet the programmatic need, according to the table. The lab had one qualified federal staff member for the same purpose, which was also not sufficient, it said.

Two other DOE sites were marked in the “yellow” category, “adequate but needs improvement,” on the table: the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and DOE Environmental Management’s Fluor Paducah Deactivation Project working to deactivate the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky.

The Paducah project was identified to have had one Level 2 criticality safety infraction, two Level 3 infractions, and seven Level 4 infractions. One federal assessment yielded nine total findings, according to the table, and six qualified criticality contractor staff members were not enough to meet the need, although its four federal staff were sufficient.

Meanwhile, DOE did not identify any criticality safety infractions or program noncompliances at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash., but noted one finding resulting from 13 contractor assessments during the fiscal year. The table said this office had four criticality contractor staff members and one federal staffer, which were enough to meet programmatic needs.

The report gave “green” grades – meets or exceeds expectations –  to the NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; the Sandia National Laboratories, headquartered in New Mexico; NNSA operations in Nevada; and the Pantex Plant in Texas and Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, jointly operated by Consolidated Nuclear Security.

Environmental Management operations at DOE sites in Washington state, Ohio, Kentucky, Idaho, Tennessee, and South Carolina also received the top criticality safety rating.

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