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Oversight board questions adequacy of LANL efforts to protect against quake

JERI CLAUSING  Associated Press
Last Updated: November 17, 2011 - 6:17 pm

SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Alamos National Laboratory is nearing completion of structural work designed to ensure the country's premier plutonium lab can withstand a major earthquake, but safety oversight board members said Thursday they remain concerned the fixes are inadequate to protect the public from a major radioactive release.

"You need to ensure adequate protection at every moment of the day," Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said during a public hearing where he and other member of the Congressionally appointed board grilled lab officials about their priorities as well as their definitions of "adequate protection for public and workers."

"We are a little frustrated," he said, "and we haven't heard anything compelling here today" to allay the board's ongoing concerns about whether seismic threat were being properly addressed.

Lab officials, on the other hand said they were confident of their efforts to shore up the 1970s-era facility known as PF-4, which is the nation's primary center for working with the dangerous plutonium that used in nuclear weapons.

"From a seismic perspective, I would feel safer in PF 4 than in my own home," LANL Director Charles McMillan said.

Safety, he said, is "unequivocally ... our highest priority at the lab."

Other lab officials repeated their confidence that the main plutonium facility, known as PF 4, was safer than their homes.

But Winokur questioned whether that confidence about the lab's structure extended to protecting the public from radioactive releases should a major quake occur along nearby fault lines and spark a fire or other problem at the plutonium facility.

Work to retrofit the aging Plutonium Facility should be complete next year, but upgrades to the lab's fire suppression system won't be finished until 2013 and a ventilation system to contain a major radioactive release won't be complete until 2020 -- assuming Congress funds the project.

"This should be a priority in your funding requests," said Winokur.

Greg Mello, with the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, urged the board to go to the White House to ensure property safety standards are adopted -- and enacted.

"We do not believe the (National Nuclear Security Administration) is capable of setting sound priorities," he said.

"We do not accept 2020 as good enough" for installing an adequate ventilation system. "To us, 2020 means whenever."

PF-4 is one of two aging buildings at the lab where plutonium work is done. Since new studies in 2007 showed the potential for a major earthquake along faults in the area could occur every few thousand years -- more frequently than previously thought -- LANL has been working to make sure the building meets more stringent seismic standards. It also has taken the initial steps to replace the even older second plutonium lab, known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research, at a cost that could reach close to $6 billion.

Safety concerns, however, have swirled around both projects for years. The oversight board, which makes recommendations to Congress, has been instrumental in pushing for stronger safeguards.

Given the amount of plutonium at the PF 4 -- the only building in the country equipped for making the pits that power nuclear weapons, "I don't understand how you conclude adequate protection," Winkour said to a panel of officials from National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy that oversees the nation's nuclear facilitiesand contractors.

Donald Cook, deputy administrator for Defense Programs at NNSA, said that based on estimates that the risk of a major quake at the facility is only 1 to 1.5 percent over the facility's lifetime, a "conservative estimate right now is the risk to the public is on the order of one in ten thousand than the risk from all other sources."

"The definition of risk is that it is the combination of the probability of something occurring and the consequence of what it is that happens," he said.

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