- Special Sections
- Public Notices
A couple of weeks ago, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Chairman Peter Winokur sent a letter to new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
A main topic of the letter included the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Winokur wrote, “As you assume your duties, the Board would like to provide you with a brief summary of its views on the current challenges DOE faces in the area of safety at DOE’s defense nuclear facilities. In particular, the Board draws your attention to the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory that analysis shows may be vulnerable to collapse as a consequence of design basis seismic earthquake and the many challenges awaiting resolution regarding the storage and disposition of legacy waste at the Hanford site.”
The main thrust of the letter, though, was PF-4.
A May 24 Site Office Report detailed a number of incidents at PF-4.
The report stated, “Several of these issues were self identified and conservative action was taken to respond, critique, and develop corrective actions. However, these infractions and deviations indicate potential conduct of operations and Criticality Safety Evaluation (CSE) issues that emphasize the need for LANL to continue criticality safety improvements.”
The report cited an incident when during a system walk-down, the Board’s staff identified material located within a workstation that was not allowed by the CSE.
The Site Report said that because this was one of multiple infractions that occurred in that particular room, operations were paused in the room while personnel ensured limits specified in CSEs were better understood.
The report details a process deviation when liquid was found in a wet vacuum system and according to the CSE, liquid is not normally expected to be in that area.
And there was more.
A worker was identified with skin contamination after removal of a plug during a glove box pressure test.
In a memo to LANL employees issued Thursday, lab director Charlie McMillan announced that certain work operations at the PF-4 would temporarily pause programmatic activities.
“Because of the nature and importance of the work we do, it is important to regularly assess all aspects of our operations to ensure we are executing our procedures and operational processes appropriately,” McMillan said in the memo.
“We expect some areas to return to operational status sooner than others, but we do not expect there to be any significant impacts to mission deliverables as a result of this action. To accomplish our national security missions we work with materials that must be strictly controlled and safely handled. Today this material remains safe, secure, and protected. It stays that way in part because of strict adherence to procedures and formality in our operations. Once we have verified that operations can be safely and reliably conducted, the director will allow operations to resume.”
McMillan’s memo came on the heels of an Inspector General’s report that criticized Los Alamos for not doing enough to protect the public from dangerous releases of radiation in the event of wildfires or an earthquake.
Here are some specifics from the IG’s report.
• Seismic issues affecting PF-4 remain to be addressed. For example, fire suppression system and glove box stand improvements to mitigate the adverse consequences of a seismic event are not scheduled to be completed until 2014 and 2015, respectively.
• Fire protection and prevention vulnerabilities in Area G continue to exist. In particular, Los Alamos had not resolved all known fire suppression and lightning protection system deficiencies.
• Several known risks exist with compensatory measures implemented in Area G that may lessen their efficacy in mitigating natural disasters.
The report gave Los Alamos credit in completing compensatory measures, including physical upgrades, to reduce seismic risk for PF-4, and as of April 2013, additional upgrades were in process.
With regard to Area G, Los Alamos recently implemented actions to mitigate the risk of fire from natural disasters. In addition, since 2011, the Department and NNSA have committed to the complete removal of all the non-cemented, above-ground transuranic waste from Area G by June 30, 2014.
The report said NNSA officials responsible for overseeing Los Alamos pointed out that decisions to budget and scheduled mitigation measures are based on factors including the probability of an event occurring, such as a seismic event, and whether a structure is considered to be a permanent or limited life facility. In their view, there is a rare probability of a seismic event occurring in Los Alamos of sufficient magnitude to cause a significant plutonium release from PF-4. Additionally, with an expected operational life of less than 5 years, Los Alamos considers Area G to be a limited-life facility.
The IG report, however, said Los Alamos needs to do more.
“While a number of compensatory and corrective actions have been completed, in our view, further actions are needed to mitigate existing vulnerabilities. As such, we made recommendations to ensure that continued management attention is focused on addressing the identified vulnerabilities,” the report said.
The report went on to cite a July 2012 letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
The letter stated that PF-4 lacks the structural resilience and redundancy required by modern building codes and makes it susceptible to structural failure if subjected to the strong seismic ground motions. In January 2013, the DNFSB informed the Department that while the structural upgrades that are necessary to fix the vulnerabilities at PF-4 are currently projected to take several years to complete, the potential for very high offsite dose consequences remains.
The report said, “Los Alamos Field Office officials noted that while the dose consequence of a seismic event at PF-4 is high, the probability of a large earthquake that would cause a significant plutonium release is low. The officials also stated that although the seismic issues still need to be addressed, NNSA’s decision process is based on risk in accordance with established department policy. In a March 2013 letter to the DNFSB, the Secretary of Energy responded to the seismic risks identified in DNFSB’s January 2013 letter.
“The Secretary stated that the Department is continuing to take further actions to reduce the amount of plutonium at PF-4 and to improve the facility’s seismic capabilities. For example, NNSA plans to implement a new safety-class container for heat source plutonium. The Secretary concluded that PF-4 can continue to operate safely while longer-term structural modifications are completed. As of April 2013, the engineering work on the modifications was in progress, but completion timeframes for the modifications had not been established.”
The IG then made the following recommendations.
Complete the review of the Area G exemption request for the lack of automatic fire suppression systems.
PF-4 seismic upgrades are completed in a timely manner;
Los Alamos completes the previously initiated revisions for the New Information and Unreviewed Safety Question processes.
Ensure that Los Alamos’ planned removal of vulnerable transuranic waste is carried out as scheduled and that temporary protective measures are effective and carried out in a timely manner.
NNSA concurred with the recommendations.
“NNSA has mechanisms in place to track completion of PF-4 seismic upgrades and will continue to effectively monitor and manage these upgrades in accordance with contractual incentives, safety basis commitments, and the multiyear plan to execute the upgrades,” the NNSA said in its response.