Explosion at test firing site causes $1 million in damages

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The accident was provisionally categorized as a safety event with a Category 2 significance

By Roger Snodgrass

An unusually loud noise after an explosive experiment at a firing site at Los Alamos National Laboratory at about 3:10 p.m. on Dec. 16 alerted researchers to a possible safety problem.

According to an occurrence report obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, the researchers involved in a large-bore powder gunshot waited about 20 minutes before they left a neighboring bunker and went out to see what happened.

They discovered “that two doors had been blown off the facility and concrete shielding blocks on the west and east side of the building were separated from the wall,” according to the report. No personal injuries were reported from the accident.

Pieces of the gun that had been tested were found on the asphalt outside the building.

The accident was later provisionally categorized as a safety event with a Category 2 significance. Under the DOE emergency management system, category 2 denotes an event with a “moderate impact” on the facility.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson, Damien LaVera, said the accident occurred during “a standard proof test on a new design for a catch tank in the target chamber for one of our large bore powder guns,” and was part of a routine experiment that resulted in “unexpected explosive damage.”

An investigation was triggered, he added, because the resulting damage could exceed $1 million.

That investigation is ongoing and is expected to determine by next month the extent of the damages and identify corrective actions that may be necessary.

In releasing the report, POGO said its sources estimated the damage to the property “at over $3 million.”

Kevin Roark, a LANL spokesperson said, “We’re hopeful we will be below the $1 million level.”

He said the structure was

something less than a building

“It’s really just an outdoor firing site, constructed from moveable concrete blocks used as blast barriers and a rudimentary metal roof to keep the weather out,” he said.

He said the gun was not damaged, but rather the catch vessel or target chamber, which captures all the byproducts from the shot.

“It was breached; it was over pressured, and that was unexpected,” Roark said, which accounted for the unusually loud noise.

“No personnel were injured from this event, no hazardous or radioactive materials were involved, and the lab’s incident response mechanisms appear to have performed as

intended,” LaVera said in the statement from Washington.