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"Forget the Rest" blog

Voice of Russia

Los Alamos laboratory in danger

Sasha Raikhlina, Jul 1, 2011, 12:36 Moscow Time (MP3 here)

Our guest today is Greg Mello, an executive director and co-founder of the Los Alamos Study Group. We will be talking about the wild fires through New Mexico that have been raging dangerously close to the Los Alamos Laboratory.

Most importantly, has everybody been safely evacuated from the dangerous zone?

As far as we know, everyone has.

And how far is the wildfire currently from the Los Alamos Laboratory?

It’s wide across the road from the southern boundary of the laboratory and perhaps about a mile on the south-west and continues along the west boundary of the laboratory.

I believe the facility of greatest concern within the lab is the Technical Area 55, which holds a large amount of plutonium. Is that so?

That’s certainly one concern. There is a tritium facility, which is very close to an active area of the fire. And then there is a waste facility in the central part of the laboratory to the east of the plutonium facility that is about three miles from the fire. The proximity of the tritium facility to the fire concerns me a little bit, even though presumably the tritium facility is protected against fires.

How is it protected against fires?

According to the laboratory, materials are put in fireproof containers, and the building itself is somewhat fortified against fires. Against that we have to put the fact that this facility has had a number of safety problems – there have been tritium-related problems, associated with this facility – and there is always a possibility of some confusion. As far as we know, everything is safe and everyone ahs done their job properly.

When do these problems at tritium facility date back to?

There problems have occurred over a long period of time, having to do with the integrity of tritium containers, with some leaks in the tritium system that can allow air into the tritium. They are a little bit beyond the routine back and forth that occurs with safety inspectors. The facility is a little more troubled than we would like to see it. But it’s not over the top. They don’t have that incredible workload there, so they can more or less shut down parts of the facility when they have exceeded their safety limit. The uncertainty and the lack of information that goes with Los Alamos National Laboratory arouse some small sense of disquiet. But I can’t say that there’s danger there.

Do you think there is a chance that nuclear materials are currently leaking at the site?

No, I don’t think there is any chance of that, because as of a couple of hours ago the fire hadn’t entered the laboratory anywhere near that facility. There was one small area, where the fire entered the laboratory. But it was an area, where there wasn’t a great density of forest, and the fire was put out yesterday.

So, there is a team of firefighters currently working at laboratory?

Yes, there is. I don’t know exactly know how many firefighters are there, but I’d expect a few hundred. And there are a number of airplanes involved. The fire is very large. It blew up very quickly to 60,000 acres, or almost 100 square miles, in just two days.

What extra steps have been taken to protect especially hazardous parts of the laboratory from this fire?

There have been forest thinning that has taken place before now, and there are fire crews standing by. There is a concern that, given the size of the fire, that there might not be enough manpower, if the fire starts moving in another direction and then switches back. They have foam, which they can use on sensitive facilities. There is somewhat greater danger with this fire, because, as was the case in Russia last year, the forests are very dry, and the fire behavior is more aggressive than most people have ever seen in their lives.

Are the laboratory’s emergency systems up to date? Were they prepared, in the first place, to deal with that sort of abnormality?

The laboratory’s emergency systems are supposedly up to date. There is always a chance that the laboratory hasn’t managed itself well. It’s not a very well-managed facility overall. We hope there was an adverse external review of the fire department in 2002 by the Government Accountability Office. That review dealt mostly with the ability of the Los Alamos fire department to respond to fires involving hazardous chemicals and nuclear materials. This fire so far hasn’t involved nuclear materials and is more of an ordinary forest fire sort of fire.

Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory is the nuclear research laboratory in the United States. How can it not be managed well?

That’s a good question. There is too much money. There are too many dollars chasing a relatively small amount of work. So, there is a sense of entitlement, lack of vigor and the definition of jobs. And it’s run by a for-profit corporation, so there is always a consideration whether more money will be available for a project. That doesn’t create a very lean management structure.

Did anyone ever expect wildfires to sweep so close to the laboratory?

Oh, yes. Wildfires were expected. What wasn’t expected is how fast the fire developed. Seriously, I didn’t expect it, and the Los Alamos fire chief said that it is the most impressive fire he has ever seen in his 42 years

The concern I have in mind is that most America’s nuclear facilities have been built more than 30 years ago, and I’m wondering if any safety features are outstanding from these facilities due to the fact that they may be outdated?

They are outdated in many cases. And the US Regulatory Department has not been adhesive. There were a lot of cuts. Inspectors very often will look in paperwork rather than physically looking at the plant. Regulations have been continuously weakened, so that plants may still fit the regulations, even though they are getting older and older. I think some plants, which are located in particularly bad locations or which use particularly outdated and unsafe technologies, need to be shut down.

What would these power plants be, that need to be shut down?

The General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water reactors of the kind used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are prime candidates for suspicion, because their containment systems are inherently inadequate. I didn’t mention the problem of overloading spent fuel pools, which occurs across all reactors in the US. It would be relatively cheap – only a few billion dollars – to put the fuel in dry cask storage, which should be done immediately. Some reactors, which are located in particularly bad locations, really ought to be closed.

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