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"Forget the Rest" blog


Volume 15 No. 17                                                                                                                              April 22, 2011


An ongoing review of seismic safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory has identified new structural problems at the lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4). The lab revealed the issue in a self-report to the National Nuclear Security Administration and in an April 15 news release. The review found that a worst-case earthquake could “cause significant damage to some parts of the facility,” according to the lab’s announcement.

The issue raises new questions about the already costly process underway of retrofitting the 1970s-era PF-4 to meet modern seismic safety standards. The NNSA has already budgeted $75.4 million to $99 million for the ongoing Technical Area 55 Revitalization Project-II (TRP-II). Planning has begun for a third phase, TRP-III (NW&M Monitor, Vol. 15 No. 15), but it is as yet unclear how the new seismic findings might impact that process or what steps need to be taken or costs incurred to deal with the latest findings.

Fallout From 2007 Earthquake Assessment

The findings are the latest fallout from the 2007 update to the lab’s Probabilistic Seismic Hazards Assessment (PSHA), which determines the worst case earthquake possible—an event with a return interval of 2,500 years. Efforts to harden the lab’s nuclear facilities to safely withstand such a quake have driven dramatic increases in the costs of the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), which now has an estimated price tag of $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion. Similarly, the PSHA has led to major upgrade efforts at PF-4, the nation’s only facility capable of major plutonium operations, including pit fabrication.

Even prior to the new seismic problems, PF-4 has been a major sore point for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety
Board, which oversees lab operations. In October 2009, the DNFSB issued a formal recommendation calling for major
upgrades at PF-4 because of the risk of fire and plutonium release in the worst-case earthquake scenario. At the time,
the Board criticized the lab for an inadequate approach to seismic upgrades, saying that the plans then in place would
take too long and not adequately address the issues. The only saving grace at the time, according to the DNFSB, was the building itself. “The only safety feature that can be credited for these accident scenarios is the passive confinement provided by the facility structure,” the Board staff wrote. But now, even the “safety feature” of walls and a roof able to survive a major earthquake has been called into question.

Lab: Upgrades Feasible

In the two years since, the NNSA and Los Alamos have moved aggressively to upgrade systems within the building
to better withstand an earthquake, and in particular to prevent a glovebox fire in an earthquake that could potentially
release radioactive smoke. The new findings suggest the structural integrity of the building itself will have to be taken into account as the upgrade process continues. Lab officials believe such upgrades are possible. 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 conditions,” according to the lab’s statement discussing the problem. “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve,” lab Associate Director for Nuclear and High Hazard Operations Bob McQuinn said, “we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

Lab critic Greg Mello, who has tracked seismic issues for a number of years, was less optimistic. The director of the Los Alamos Study Group suggested upgrading PF-4 to meet seismic standards may be impossible, and argued that the seismic problems at Los Alamos go farther. “It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards,” he said. He also complained that the emphasis over the last decade on CMRR-NF has detracted from the work necessary to upgrade the lab’s existing nuclear facilities.

—From staff reports (reprinted with permission)

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