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For immediate release May 20, 2014
Federal Safety Board Cautions DOE on LANL Plutonium Facility
Main plutonium facility might "collapse" in earthquake unless repairs are completed; scope of work needed still unknown
On May 16, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB, Board), cautioned Congress about the structural integrity of the main plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the event of an earthquake similar to those which have rocked the site in recent millenia. The building in question, "PF-4," was built in 1978 to earlier, less stringent earthquake standards.
...the Board remains concerned that PF-4 is vulnerable to seismic collapse. The large plutonium inventory of PF-4, coupled with the facility's proximity to the public, creates the potential for high off-site radiological consequences. DOE is pursuing actions to address the collapse vulnerability, but maintains that PF-4 is safe to operate in the interim and complies with DOE standards for seismic performance. The Board communicated to DOE in a letter dated July 17, 2013, that it does not agree...
...the Secretary of Energy transmitted a letter to the Board on March 27, 2013, stating that PF-4 was safe for continued operation based on the current structural analysis. The Board replied in a July 17, 2013, letter to the Secretary of Energy, stating that it did not agree...the Board was encouraged by DOE's decision to conduct the alternate analysis using a second modeling approach that the Board believes is essential to ensure that all seismic vulnerabilities and necessary structural upgrades are identified to prevent the collapse of PF-4...NNSA recently informed the Board that completion [of further analysis] is estimated for June 2014. The Board intends to use the outcome of this analysis to guide its future actions.
LANL has strengthened some structural components of PF-4 already and has anchored its equipment better. Additional needed work has been identified and a congressional construction line item is underway but the total scope of work required is still not known. The forthcoming analysis will provide the engineering basis for further upgrades. These must be designed, costs developed for them, funds reprogrammed (or requested and appropriated), and then the work must be successfully done.
On June 27, 2013, the LANL Director paused programmatic operations in the Plutonium Facility, in part, to enable laboratory management to address nuclear criticality safety concerns identified by both internal and external assessments. During this pause, NNSA briefed the Board on a strategy to develop criticality safety evaluations (CSE) for higher-risk operations prior to resumption. The Board is aware that this plan has evolved such that the LANL Director intends to resume many higher-risk operations without first developing compliant CSEs.
Department of Energy directives and industry consensus standards require that CSEs unambiguously demonstrate how fissionable material operations will remain subcritical under both normal and credible abnormal conditions. These CSEs identify controls to ensure safe operation. Therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2286b(d), the Board requests a briefing from NNSA within 14 days on how the NNSA will ensure that adequate controls will be identified as the laboratory resumes higher-risk operations in the Plutonium Facility.
Recently, plutonium waste drums from LANL were discovered to have been filled with incompatible materials, causing an unplanned chemical reaction in one or more drums with considerable release of heat, bursting of at least one drum and expulsion of plutonium, contamination of underground facilities at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), plutonium uptake by twenty-two workers, and shutdown of WIPP, potentially for as long as three years. Potentially unstable transuranic waste from LANL has already been shipped to Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, TX, where it now sits, and more of it is stored at LANL. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has issued an imminent and substantial endangerment order (Associated Press article).
For Criticality Safety, the stability and long-term viability of the program is in question, which has adversely impacted Laboratory nuclear operations at Plutonium Facility 4 and at the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility; and which could impact Nevada Nuclear Security Site nuclear operations. Management inattention and delay early in the fiscal year contributed to a persistent downward trend in this area and threaten long-term program viability. Weaknesses in the program contributed to conditions leading to the Plutonium Facility 4 (PF-4) pause in programmatic operations and are rate-limiting PF-4 resumption. (FY2013 PER, p. 22, emphasis added)
Study Group director Greg Mello: "There are systemic management problems with safety at LANL, as we see in these communications from DNFSB and NNSA -- the latter resulting in a significant penalty. We have no final report on the recent LANL-caused WIPP accident but it is clear that supervision at LANL was poor or inadequate.