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No Timeline Yet for Restart of Operations at LANL Plutonium Facility

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor

It doesn’t appear that Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility will be fully operational any time soon, according to information released this week. Work at the facility was shut down in June 2013, with only partial operations having resumed, and National Nuclear Security Administration Acting Associate Administrator for Infrastructure and Operations Jim McConnell has said the facility is being restarted with an eye on sustaining long-term operations at the facility. The plutonium facilities at LANL are being upgraded to support the long-term plutonium mission,” McConnell said in a Sept. 5 letter to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. “Criticality safety and conduct of operations at PF-4 are also being upgraded to ensure safe, sustained, long-term nuclear operations. Our oversight activities, readiness preparations, and review processes for all the PF-4 resumption activities will be consistent with this objective.”

McConnell said NNSA and the lab are developing the scope and schedule for the readiness assessments. “Progress has been made over the summer toward resuming activities in PF-4, we continue to work on resuming the remaining activities as quickly and safely as possible,” Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said. Roark emphasized that the focus of NNSA and the lab was to ensure that restarted operations are “high-quality” and “sustainable” with “continuous improvement” in criticality safety and formality of operations. “Together we are working to upgrade both infrastructure and procedures and processes, and will undertake a deliberate and rigorous readiness review process that supports a long-term plutonium mission at the Laboratory,” Roark said. “Los Alamos and NNSA are applying the resources and attention necessary to complete this work as soon as possible but will not compromise safety.”

Lengthy Readiness Reviews to be Conducted on Remaining Stopped Work

McConnell said lengthy readiness reviews will be conducted on operations that haven’t yet been restarted. That will include contractor readiness reviews for welding, assembly, inspection, and part and low energy radiography. Federal readiness assessments will be conducted on pyrochemistry, aqueous chloride, aqueous nitrate, cementation, casting, milling and blending, welding, isotope fuel impact tester, hot isotopic press, electrolytic decontamination of uranium, machining, and furnace operations.

Operations that have already restarted include work involving Plutonium-238, high energy radiography, full-scale test facility, actinide chemistry and material characterization, dynamic testing, repackaging, consolidation and discard, 3013 packaging, materials identification and surveillance, oxide characterization, non-destructive assay, waste/shipping/receiving, material storage and staging, drop boxes, and material transfer carts. “We will continue to focus on improvement in the operations that have already been resumed through the Laboratory Director’s process,” McConnell said. “Senior LANL managers, in conjunction with federal oversight, will be present to monitor and support continuous improvement in resumed operations to achieve a high standard of safety through robust conduct of operations practices including implementing concise and direct criticality safety requirements.”

Widespread Problems Preceded Pause

The lab announced a full pause of operations at the Plutonium Facility last June, gradually restarting operations as it corrects a multitude of issues found to have been plaguing the facility. Roark did not respond to a request outlining what deliverables might have been missed because of the shutdown. Earlier this year, a DNFSB report summarizing an internal review provided some insight into the widespread problems that led to the shutdown, revealing an operational culture at the facility that was “reactive, rather than executing to a strategic plan with prioritized actions.” The Board report said issues found in criticality safety events were not investigated to reveal issues and corrective actions, including improvements needed in management. The report also said that poor communication “reflects insufficient management attention to the causes of infractions and needed corrective actions.”

The report said that roles and responsibilities are not consistent, unclear requirements and terminology haven’t been fixed, documented hazard analyses failed to note collocated hazards and controls, the critique process and output is inadequate to create improvements, internal assessments fail to discover and fix problems, corrective actions are vague and short-sighted, and lessons learned data “does not provide clear operational insight, nor is it adequately communicated and implemented.”

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