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Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charles McMillan has approved resumption of some low mass nuclear materials operations in the lab’s Technical Area 55, taking the first major step toward restarting operations after a June shutdown because of criticality safety concerns. The approval came Nov. 20, according to a lab memo included in a Dec. 6 letter from National Nuclear Security Administration Acting Associate Administrator James McConnell to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

According to the memo, McMillan delegated decisionmaking authority for some low-mass activities, involving up to 520 grams of plutonium, “after a thorough review of the criticality safety basis for this limit and a walk-down of several work locations that operate under this limit.” The process now involves ensuring that procedures for these operations can be performed as written during the rewrite of the criticality operating procedures for TA-55 since the June shutdown, NW&M Monitor has learned. Earlier this year, procedures involving weight and measuring items in a glovebox were authorized to resume, but the low mass operations represent a more significant move toward returning to full operations.

TA-55 ‘Pause’ Began in June

The “pause” in programmatic work at TA-55 began June 27 after the DNFSB raised a serious of concerns about criticality safety issues at the facility, where the bulk of the plutonium work for the entire nuclear weapons complex is done. In one case, the Safety Board staff raised questions about material storage in a lab workstation in violation of Criticality Safety Evaluation Guidelines. In another case, criticality mass limits were exceeded in a plutonium vault area when two nuclear materials containers were inadvertently switched. “Because of the nature and importance of the work we do, we must regularly assess all aspects of our operations to ensure we are executing our procedures and operational processes appropriately,” McMillan said in an email to staff at the time.

Lab spokeswoman Nancy Ambrosiano said the current focus is on a safe and orderly restart of operations in TA55. “We are focused on the resumption of programmatic activities performed in the Plutonium Facility and expect to issue a comprehensive schedule for resumption of all PF-4 programmatic activities in early 2014,” she said in a statement.

Former Rocky Flats Official Detailed to LANL

McConnell’s memo to the DNFSB suggests the seriousness of the issues raised by the process, hinting at a tension between the lab and its NNSA managers. The agency has detailed NNSA official Jerry McKamy to provide agency oversight and assistance to the process. McKamy is a former Rocky Flats criticality safety official who has been called a whistleblower for his work documenting the problem of plutonium that had accumulated in the Colorado weapons plant’s duct work. McKamy’s presence “exemplifies the problem solving partnership we are working towards re-building between NNSA and the NNSA-owned national laboratories,” McConnell wrote. McConnell said the agency is working to understand “why the decline of criticality safety staffing and inadequate criticality safety performance persisted for so long before NNSA and LANL took definitive action to address the situation.” McConnell frankly acknowledged that the process of improving the lab’s criticality safety program now underway “will be a multi-year effort.”

Adequate staffing to do the criticality safety analysis has been the “rate-limiting” part of the problem, according to the LANL memo. New staff hiring is underway, and the lab is borrowing workers from Lawrence Livermore and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, along with brining back retirees to mentor new staff. In working toward restart, the lab has identified a number of goals, including reduction in material limits to provide increased criticality safety margins, improved labeling, and revised worker training and qualification.

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