Earthquake could threaten plutonium stores

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DNFSB intervenes in lagging safety upgrades

By Roger Snodgrass

In an unusually blistering recommendation, an independent federal safety monitor for the nuclear weapons complex expressed concerns about potential consequences of an earthquake at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Continuing a theme that has reappeared regularly in the reports and correspondence of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the board said it had identified a need to execute both immediate and long-term action that can reduce the risk posed by a seismic event at the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The board requests quarterly updates of actions taken to upgrade the lab’s safety strategy.

LANL is the designated “center for excellence” for plutonium under the National Nuclear Security Administrations plans for transforming the nuclear complex, but the DNFSB has been critical of fire safety systems and latent risks in the facility where most of the current plutonium is stored.

DNFSB concerns prompted more detailed seismic studies related to a new Chemistry and Metallury Research Replacement complex, of which the first office building has been nearly completed. Congress this year required DNFSB’s certification on seismic issues before releasing additional funds to continue the work on the CMRR.

DNFSB gave that approval based on assurances of future concurrences.

Now the safety board considers “flawed” the fundamental safety analysis upon which the Plutonium Facility is allowed to operate. That document, which is based on the assumption of future upgrades, is known as the Documented Safety Analysis and relies on a formal evaluation report that the board finds inappropriate.

The worry is that an earthquake, while highly unlikely, might cause radioactive sources to ignite inside gloveboxes in the facility and those might cause fires in the facility, along with other post-seismic risks of fire.

Such a fire, the board believes, could cause a massive radioactive release offsite that could be a hundred times greater than DOE guidelines allow.

“DOE must take steps to develop defensible seismic safety strategy for the Plutonium Facility,” the board concluded.

A call to the John E. Mansfield, vice chairman of the DNFSB, was not returned in time for publication today. The board is currently operating without a chair.

Jennifer Wagner, deputy director of public affairs for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said Tuesday that NNSA is preparing a formal response to the board’s recommendation.

A prepared statement from NNSA emphasized the agency’s process to improve the safety posture at the facility:

“NNSA has made numerous improvements in the safety posture of its plutonium operations in recent years, which include improved packaging of nuclear material, better control of combustibles and the approval of the first comprehensive safety analysis since 1996,” according to the statement. “That analysis identified the need for additional facility upgrades to meet the NNSA’s safety goals. Although the analysis concluded that operations are currently safe, a more sophisticated analysis is needed to evaluate the details of all the relevant hazards in a seismic event, to demonstrate an adequate control strategy and to ensure that needed improvements are made to meet NNSA safety goals. We are working to ensure that needed improvements in both the analysis and the control strategy are made in a timely fashion.”

A parallel statement by the laboratory affirmed the manager’s commitment to protect “the health and safety of our employees and the public…”

Neither Wagner, nor LANL spokesman Kevin Roark, were able to answer questions on the matter.