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"Forget the Rest" blog


Saturday, April 16, 2011
LANL's Earthquake Study 'A Big Deal'

Journal Staff Report

    A new study of potential damage from an earthquake to a Los Alamos National Laboratory plutonium facility shows "that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility," the lab announced Friday.
    "Everyone at Los Alamos is committed to the safety of our workforce, our facilities, and the community we call home," Bob McQuinn, associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, said in a statement released by the lab.
    "While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities. As we develop our plan to strengthen the structure, we will tackle those physical updates that provide the largest contributions to facility safety first."
    Los Alamos sits atop mesas laced with faults, making seismic risk a safety issue.
    Friday's announcement said LANL's Seismic Analysis of Facilities and Evaluation of Risk (SAFER) Project has been conducting a multiyear analysis of the seismic design loads on every existing facility at the site.
    Friday, the lab "self-reported" to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of the structural load capacities at Plutonium Facility-4 at LANL's Technical Area 55.
    TA-55 is about a mile from the Laboratory's main technical area and administrative hub and covers about four acres. The TA-55 complex began operations in 1978 and is comprised of several buildings, including the 150,000-square-foot PF-4 plutonium processing facility.
    PF-4 is used for plutonium manufacturing, stockpile surveillance, plutonium disposition, plutonium heat source fabrication for deep-space NASA missions, and a variety of nuclear materials research and development programs.
    Greg Mello, of the LANL watchdog group Los Alamos Study Group, said in an email that the new study "is a big deal." He said he recently spoke to a senior NNSA official "who offered the opinion that PF-4 would 'never' meet modern seismic and safety requirements."
    The new analysis incorporates new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling. In addition to citing the potential for significant quake damage to PF-4, the analysis "identified areas of the facility that if strengthened could increase its seismic response capability and would reduce the potential impact on the facility even under worst-case seismic conditions," the lab said.
    "A comprehensive seismic hazard analysis has been under way for several years to provide a better understanding of the stresses on the PF-4 structure and how it might react during any seismic event," the lab said.
    LANL already has started upgrades to the fire suppression system, air handling and filtration systems and storage infrastructure.
    Seismic safety has been a point of discussion as plans have moved forward in recent years for a new, multi-billion dollar plutonium complex at Los Alamos. In February, an official with the Defense Nuclear Safety Board questioned whether the federal government was backing away from safety commitments intended to prevent plutonium from leaking in the event of an earthquake or fire.
    In December, federal safety auditors praised steps taken by LANL to reduce risks from a worst-case earthquake fire scenario at the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, which the new project would replace.

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