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Los Alamos National Laboratory “paused” programmatic work in the lab’s plutonium complex June 27 in order to review criticality safety and other “conduct of operations” issues in the high-security facility. The move came a week after Peter Winokur, head of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz reminding the new appointee of the agency’s ongoing concerns about plutonium issues at Los Alamos. While Winokur’s letter focused primarily on ongoing earthquake risk issues at Los Alamos, the Safety Board also has recently raised concerns about criticality safety infractions, including an incident in which Safety Board staff identified nuclear materials stored in a lab workstation in violation of Criticality Safety Evaluation Guidelines. In another case identified in a May 24 Safety Board staff report, criticality mass limits were exceeded in one of the plutonium facility’s vault areas when two nuclear materials containers were inadvertently switched.

As a result, according to the Safety Board, operations were “paused” in the room where the problems occurred. The pause was to allow lab workers to “walk down” each operation conducted in the room to ensure that criticality controls were clearly understood by the workers, according to a Safety Board weekly report. The announcement of a full pause, made by lab director Charlie McMillan in an email to lab staff the afternoon of June 27, expands the pause to all operational activities in the lab’s Plutonium Facility, also known as PF-4. “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 wrote in the staff email. “Based on reviews with facility operations staff at PF-4, and findings from recent assessments, I have decided to temporarily pause programmatic activities effective this afternoon.”

According to lab spokesman Fred deSousa, some of the problems being reviewed during the pause were self-identified by lab workers under the encouragement of their managers. “When people aren’t following procedures or the procedures aren’t accurate, you generally see that as an indicator that you could encounter some problems,” an industry official with knowledge of the pause told NW&M Monitor. “The director expects anyone in the laboratory if they see issues to raise the flag. The flag was raised and he felt it was important to show leadership and take action and take a pause.” McMillan said in his staff email that he did not expect “any significant impact to mission deliverables.” The industry official said the facility does not current have a heavy workload. “It provides the opportunity to pause without having any real mission impacts,” the official said. “Get things straightened up, get people retrained where they need to be retrained, rewrite procedures where they need to be re-written, and get things up and running.”

IG Report Raises Seismic Concerns

News of the pause came the same day the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General released a report critical of the lab’s progress on key safety problems, including addressing seismic risk at PF-4. The IG said that DOE should continue taking steps to mitigate the risk posed to Los Alamos facilities by seismic events and forest fires. In 2011 the Los Conchas wildfire threatened lab facilities, leading to a commitment by DOE to New Mexico to remove aboveground transuranic waste at Los Alamos’ Area G Waste Storage and Disposal Facility by June 2014. The report notes that a number of issues remain at Area G. Additionally, it notes several seismic upgrades that remain to be completed at the Plutonium facility, which supports pit manufacturing and plutonium recovery.

Los Alamos has not resolved all of the deficiencies in fire suppression and lightning detection at Area G, which is slated for closure at the end of 2015, the report states. It notes reports that the fire suppression systems were unreliable and inoperable in Dome 33 and Building 412 at Area G. Los Alamos subsequently corrected that in Dome 33 and requested a temporary solution for Building 412, stating it would provide a permanent solution by June 2013. Additionally, lightning protection system impairment issues are still awaiting resolution. The report states, “Even though we agree Area G is considered a limited-life facility, we believe it is still important to address risks which affect the facility’s safety support systems.”

The IG recommended that DOE complete a review of the “Area G exemption request for the lack of automatic fire suppression systems.” Los Alamos submitted that request in early 2011 to provide measures for 10 domes that lack an automatic fire extinguisher system. The National Nuclear Security Administration has completed that review and has directed Los Alamos to revise and resubmit the request by the end of September, according to a DOE response to the IG. The IG also recommended that Los Alamos complete transuranic waste removal as scheduled and that temporary protective measures are carried out. DOE responded that it is developing its Area G safety basis update, to be issued by the end of the year.

Plutonium Facility Upgrades to Be Completed

At the Plutonium Facility, the report notes that there have been several upgrades to reduce seismic risk. “For example, Los Alamos installed a new safety-class nuclear material storage system using fire rated safes and containers, assessed and repaired the facility’s main fire wall, strengthened the roof, braced ventilation room columns and fan pads, and repaired the mezzanines located above the Laboratory floor,” it states. Additional upgrades to the fire suppression system are scheduled for 2014 and to the glove box stands in 2015, according to the IG.

The IG recommended that those upgrades “are completed in a timely manner.” It noted that last year the National Nuclear Security Administration identified a number of “new seismic structural vulnerabilities” at Area G, which resulted from concerns from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that led to an unresolved safety question. Additionally, last year the DNFSB noted “multiple, substantial deficiencies” at the facility, with estimates by the lab of a potential exposure to the public, suggesting that exposure levels could be four times greater than DOE regulations and that the lab should do more to shore up the facility against a massive earthquake followed by a fire.

NNSA said it is pursuing structural upgrades at the plutonium facility in addition to fire protection and glove box stand upgrades, citing a March letter from DOE to the DNFSB. “Since PF-4 can provide its confinement safety function based on our current safety analysis, and the identified near-term risk reductions will further reduce potential consequences, I have concluded that PF-4 can continue to operate safely while longer-term structural modifications are completed,” that letter states. NNSA said that it had procedures in place to track the upgrades.

The IG report found that “although Los Alamos had made progress in upgrading nuclear facilities,” concerns remain regarding the ability of PF-4 to safely withstand a worst-case earthquake. The IG also questioned work done to reduce the risk to radioactive waste at the lab’s Area G in the case of a wildfire. The report’s release came as the second major wildfire in three years burned in the mountains west of the lab, though the most recent fire, known as Thompson Ridge, posed no threat to lab property. —Kenneth Fletcher and staff reports

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