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LANL defends plutonium facility after critical report

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By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos National Laboratory is fighting back this week in the wake of a critical report on safety issues at its plutonium production facility.

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The report by the Center of Public Integrity was published beginning Sunday and describes a safety review shutdown in 2013 that has slowed work on the manufacture and testing of new and existing plutonium pits at LANL.

An internal LANL memo obtained by the Los Alamos Monitor sent to employees Monday at the facility assured PF-4 employees that the facility is safe and ready to expand its plutonium pit manufacturing program.

“Since 2013, PF-4 programmatic operations and safety management programs have successfully completed seventeen independent external assessments – nine Contractor Readiness Assessments and eight Federal Readiness Assessments,” said LANL Principal Associate Director of Operations and Business Craig Leasure in the memo.

Leasure also assured workers that PF-4 has the full support of the Department of Energy in its efforts to ramp up plutonium pit production.

The facility is currently manufacturing three to four plutonium pits a year, but at a recent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board meeting in Santa Fe earlier this month, LANL officials indicated their plan to ramp up production to 80 pits by 2027.

“PF-4 is now 96-percent operational, including all pit manufacturing development units, pit surveillance, Pu238 support of NASA and defense programs, subcritical parts manufacturing, americium recovery and science campaigns support which are all are on schedule,” Leasure said. “With the completion of the electrorefining readiness this calendar year PF-4 will be 100 percent operational.”

Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Frank Klotz said Monday that LANL has maintained the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

“LANL has also worked closely with NNSA to minimize the impact on the critical national security missions at the laboratory,” Klotz said in a statement. “Throughout the pause in operations, LANL maintained its ability to certify the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile. By late 2016, the plutonium facility had resumed all operations that had been paused in 2013. The plutonium facility is now producing developmental pits and is on track to fabricate war reserve plutonium pits that will be used in future life extension programs beginning in the mid-2020s.”

The Center of Public Integrity’s report followed a June 7 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board hearing held in Santa Fe. During the hearing, LANL and NNSA officials were grilled extensively over LANL’s nuclear criticality safety program. The program, even after fixes were made following the 2013 shutdown, was still in noncompliance.

NNSA Associate Administrator for Safety Infrastructure and Operations James McConnell explained to the board why they were still in noncompliance.

“There are three main reasons we had to do that. (McConnell was one of the officials who reported that LANL was non-compliant during that timeframe),” McConnell said June 7. “First off, we had concerns about the number of people at the laboratory who have this very unique skill set to do criticality safety. While they’re making very significant improvements here at Los Alamos, the number is still less than where we want it.”

The lab hired five criticality safety experts last year and plans to hire six this year.

McConnell also told the board that “some of our operations have analyses that are not as complete or robust or as well constructed as our current expectations.” 

In extreme events, LANL stops operations until analyses are updated. McConnell also said they’ve found, in some cases, that the lab is performing an operation that’s so different from how it’s done across the DOE nuclear enterprise that they discontinue the practice until it’s corrected.

“In the meantime, we will conservatively address those operations and limit what we do or allow from a criticality safety perspective,” McConnell told the board June 7.

Environmental and nuclear safety advocacy groups in Northern New Mexico came down hard on the NNSA and LANL’s  reactions to the criticisms.

Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello said the recent criticism over LANL’s plutonium program exposes some fundamental flaws with LANL’s safety culture which he says has been occurring for years.

“If there was just one incident and a robust effort to fix it, then that would be one thing. What has happened is that LANS, (Los Alamos National Security, the company that manages and operates LANL) under McMillan hasn’t been able to fix this problem for many years,” Mello said. “This started a decade ago.”

Though it’s not related to the plutonium plant, Mello and others pointed to the WIPP shutdown in 2014, when LANL sent an improperly packaged waste barrel to the Carlsbad facility. Radioactive material escaped from the barrel, causing the facility to shutdown for cleanup.

“Throughout the entire tenure of LANS this problem has existed. Of course, it’s not the only such problem, looked what happened at WIPP. Things that LANL did in preparing those drums for WIPP were very unsafe,” Mello said. “The workers tried to bring this to management’s attention, and they didn’t succeed. Part of the problem is that LANL doesn’t have enough safety people.”

Nuclear Watch Executive Director Jay Coghlan noted that Klotz’s statement about NNSA withholding $82 million from LANL over various safety violations that occurred between 2013 and 2016 didn’t have a lot to do with nuclear criticality safety issues. Many of those had to do with WIPP.

“The withholding of $82 million is true, but the prior statement NNSA has held LANL accountable for these nuclear criticality safety issues is misleading. The supermajority of that $82 million was over the way Los Alamos screwed up WIPP, and has nothing to do with nuclear criticality issues,” Coghlan said.

During a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing yesterday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) asked Dept. of Energy Secretary Rick Perry about safety issues at PF-4.

“In your opinion, and the opinion of DOE, is Los Alamos making acceptable progress to fix all identified issues with its plutonium pit program?” Udall asked.

Perry answered in the affirmative, and said that PF-4 is on track to meet the DOE’s goal of 80 plutonium pits a year by 2027.

Udall also wanted to know if new safety protocols will be written into LANL’s new management and operations contract the DOE is preparing to put out to bid soon. The DOE decided not to renew LANS’ management and operations of the lab over safety violations in 2015.

“The safety of the operations at our labs – I don’t think anything is more important,” Perry said in reply to Udall’s question.

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing today on Capitol Hill, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also received a commitment from Perry that LANL’s safety culture will improve.

“I want to thank you for your commitment to that, because, whether that’s Los Alamos, WIPP, Hanford – all these places, worker safety has to be No. 1,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich also gained assurances from Perry that Los Alamos’ plutonium pit program will continue operating and meet its manufacturing goals set by the Department of Energy.

LANL’s plutonium facility, known as PF-4, is the only facility in the nation that is capable of producing and testing the plutonium pits. A plutonium pit, which is about the size of a softball, is a vital part of a nuclear weapon.