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For Immediate Release August 11, 2014

Defense Nuclear Safety Board Letter Highlights Continuing Dangers at Nation’s Nuclear Weapons Facilities

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque, NM – On August 7 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) wrote Frank Klotz, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) highlighting some of the most significant unresolved safety problems at NNSA’s eight laboratories and production facilities. 

The letter begins by drawing particular attention to long-unresolved seismic safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL’s) main plutonium facility PF-4 – which, until a long-awaited new seismic analysis is released and any further necessary modifications made, may be vulnerable to total collapse in the event of a large but credible earthquake at the site.  Selected background on the issue can be found here.[1] 

Necessary upgrades to PF-4’s active confinement ventilation system have not begun, as DNFSB notes.  That means the ventilation system which maintains negative pressure in the gloveboxes and laboratory rooms could fail in the event of an accident, allowing dangerous amounts of plutonium to spread and escape the building, contaminating collocated workers, facilities, and the public as well as firefighters and other emergency response personnel. 

The DNFSB notes that workers in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building are at serious risk.  As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has recently explained, this concrete building was constructed with minimal embedded steel reinforcing, far below current code requirements for any building, let alone a nuclear facility in a dangerous seismic zone.  An active fault runs beneath the northern wings of the building, which are fortunately not occupied.  CMR could collapse in the event of even a relatively small earthquake. 

Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello: “According to LANL’s calculations and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) statistics, sitting at a desk in CMR has more risk of death per workday than the most dangerous occupations in America, like logging and fisheries.  It is time to pack up and expeditiously move out whatever remaining work is truly necessary.  After that, NNSA should shut down that building pending demolition and cleanup.  We know of no good reason to stay in that building until 2019, which is the current plan.” 

DNFSB points out that LANL’s nuclear criticality safety program has been recognized by NNSA as inadequate since 2005.  As a result of numerous inadequacies, a severe staffing shortage, and a pattern of an increasing number of criticality safety violations observed last spring, program work (as opposed to necessary maintenance and safety work) at PF-4 was shut down on June 27 last year.  Work has not yet fully restarted and there is no path forward to address some of the outstanding problems. 

The letter touches upon other unresolved dangers at LANL and at other sites.  None of the issues are new but the letter helpfully communicates DNFSB’s highest nuclear safety priorities to Administrator Klotz. 

Mello: “The truck fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which occurred after repeated DNFSB warnings about inadequate maintenance and other accident precursors, which was shortly followed by a serious contamination incident from a bursting LANL drum that will keep WIPP closed for anywhere from 18 months to five years, should chasten those who have pooh-poohed safety in recent years.  A strong nuclear safety culture is not only important in its own right but is essential to keeping a facility operating.  Excellent safety is also necessary to attract and retain highly-skilled workers.  

“There are many signs of trouble at LANL in particular.  The plutonium facility has been partially shut down for more than a year.  Criticality safety problems have not been corrected for nine years so far, with no clear end in sight.  Over recent years criticality expertise has been partially cobbled together from feds on temporary assignment and from subcontractors, which are not sustainable approaches.  Seismic and other upgrades have been slow.  The tritium facility has been shut down for four years for a cascading series of reasons.  Area G has ongoing safety problems.  CMR has never been made safe in over two decades.  The new Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB) was not built to seismic building code standards.  Under LANL supervision, incompatible substances were mixed into more than 500 drums, one of which burst at WIPP, contaminating much of that facility as well as 22 workers. 

“These are all indicators that something is wrong with nuclear safety culture at LANL, something that goes beyond routine operational errors.  It is most definitely a management problem. 

“Recall that LANL Director Nanos, in close cooperation with NNSA, shut down all of LANL in July of 2004 for security and safety reasons gradually restarting programs only after a security and safety audit and improvements.  Principal Deputy NNSA Administrator Jerry Paul later testified that:

While much of the public attention to events leading to the laboratory stand down focused on the supposedly missing classified media, we in NNSA felt that inattention to safety procedures at the laboratory presented a greater problem. Together they led us to believe that a culture of non-compliance existed within the laboratory. A careful review of leading indicators for operations of hazardous facilities, that is, events that are precursors to low probability-high consequence accidents, suggested that laboratory performance had been declining. Some employees simply were not complying with regulations or working with regulatory agencies or bodies, including NNSA and the rest of the Department of Energy. It is this culture that we, and the laboratory’s senior managers, are trying to reverse.  (Jerry Paul testimony to House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, May 5, 2005, emphasis added)

“I don’t see enough indications that LANL is taking safety seriously enough, not at the upper management level.  They want to, and they do – up to a point.  They don’t care enough.  They don’t want to make the necessary tradeoffs.  They are too focused on growing mission and budget – and on offloading some dangerous work like waste handling to subcontractors.  Lab management is in many ways trapped by its own ideology, its grandiose mission inflation, and its narcissistic recruitment rhetoric.  These and other aspects of its corporate culture are hard to square with the high-reliability and rule-bound culture necessary to work safely in high-hazard nuclear operations.”


[1] As of last year at this time, failure of any one of fifty some-odd basement-to-roof columns was expected to overload adjacent columns, a process that would continue until the entire building had collapsed.   Some of these columns have been strengthened.  No public overview of this situation is available at this time. 

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