DOE guards against earthquake

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Chu agrees to fix long-standing safety issues

By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory is taking steps to control the consequences of an improbable earthquake, the kind that might only happen once in a couple of thousand years.

In a worst-case scenario leading to a fire emergency on the first floor of the lab’s plutonium facility on Pajarito Road, the building might survive, but the fire suppression and ventilation systems might not.

“You can’t guarantee it,” said John Mansfield, vice chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board.

Commenting on a set of findings that came to a head a couple of months ago, he said, “Any time you’re over 100 times more than the evaluation guideline, you have to take immediate action. This is a flag.”

Given the possibility of multiple failures, such a disaster, could release a highly radioactive cloud of plutonium particles. It would be much more than a permissible dose and it could travel well beyond the perimeter of the laboratory.

Given the prevalence of seismic activity now known to be in the area, the safety board insisted that those chances had to be taken into account.

Mansfield suggested that the laboratory immediately find something that could be done with the hazardous material and then follow up with things that could be done in the next few years to make the fire and ventilation systems stand up to extreme situations.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu responded last week to the board’s recommendations by reducing the amount of hazardous material that would be allowed in the Plutonium Facility at one time.

Additionally, he said, acting to limit the mixture of materials in liquid, metallic and other forms, would significantly reduce the net risk.

“However,” Chu wrote in his letter to Mansfield, “additional upgrades will be needed in order to meet DOE nuclear safety policies.”

Some of these measures have already been taken, Chu continued, including the installation of electrical shutdown systems, seismic safety upgrades and robust packaging or disposal of more than 500 pounds of weapons grade material. The amount of at-risk material on the first floor would be reduced and the “non-safety class” containers that currently store plutonium 238 for use in thermal powered spacecraft systems would be given a safety class encapsulation until they can be properly stowed away in vault water baths.

Chu has agreed to a safety board recommendation about the need for upgrades in the maximum-security plutonium facility, noting that some of the upgrades were already in the works at the time and the rest would be done as soon as possible.

Neither Los Alamos National Laboratory nor the National Nuclear Security Administration would comment beyond Chu’s letter.