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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

June 24, 2016

LANL in Final Stages of PF-4 Restart Project

By Alissa Tabirian

The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is in its final stages of its Plutonium Facility (PF-4) restart project, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) site representative report for the week ending May 20.

The report said LANL sent the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Field Office for review and approval a plan of action for the plutonium pyrochemical operations contractor readiness assessment. NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli said by email that Los Alamos National Security, the managing and operating contractor at LANL, is revising the plan of action “and it should be resubmitted to the Field Office shortly for approval.”

“NNSA approval of the POA is a pre-requisite for start of the [pyrochemistry contractor readiness assessment],” Israeli said. “No schedule impacts are expected.”

These operations are the “final planned activities” of the project to resume operations at PF-4, a 233,000-square-foot complex that is the sole U.S. facility capable of producing plutonium pits for the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Fissile material operations at the facility were paused in June 2013 due to weaknesses in criticality safety and conduct-of-operations programs. Since then, the facility has undergone structural and safety improvements to address criticality issues such as earthquake and fire risks.

A July 2015 letter from NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz to the DOE Inspector General’s Office said LANL was working to restart full operations by the end of fiscal 2016. A LANL spokesman said the lab “has resumed approximately 90 percent of PF-4 normal operations and completed much of the required readiness activities to resume PF-4 programmatic operations.”

The DOE Office of Enterprise Assessments, tasked with reviewing the progress of corrective actions and restart of operations, found in a review released in late January that Los Alamos National Security has made significant improvements toward resuming fissile material operations.

“LANS has significantly improved the level of detail and execution of procedures, criticality safety postings, fissile material labeling, and worker training and qualification,” it said. It noted that many issues with PF-4’s criticality safety program implementation had been identified since 2006.

Causal analyses after the 2013 work pause identified weaknesses in management commitment to criticality safety, ineffective processes in identifying problems, and staffing and knowledge losses that threatened the viability of the criticality safety program, EA said.

The latest DNFSB site representative report also noted that the NNSA Field Office authorized PF-4 to restart operations of its muffle furnace, casting, and advanced recovery and integrated extraction system.

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