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National safety board comes to town

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory can expect another visit soon from the safety board. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) will hold a public hearing in Los Alamos Dec. 5.The federal safety board, empowered to make recommendations to the secretaries of defense and energy, has decided to follow up on a hearing last March in Washington, D.C., with a meeting in Los Alamos. According to a recent announcement in the Federal Register, the meeting will focus on a broad range of suggestions the board made in a letter to National Nuclear Security Administration in February.“We’re going to ask them how they believe they’ve been doing from a nuclear safety point of view and discuss with them the current nuclear safety items of interest,” said A. J. Eggenberger, DNFSB chairman, in a telephone interview Tuesday.The questions will be directed to senior officials of Los Alamos National Security and the NNSA.Recent site reports from Los Alamos have emphasized issues and concerns at the main plutonium facility, PF-4 in Technical Area 55 and transuranic waste removal operations to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad.In a letter on Oct. 16, the board said it had become “increasingly concerned in the overall lack of progress with respect to safety improvements at LANL. Noting a number of initiatives aimed at long-term solutions, the board identified “positive and mutually reinforcing” efforts.“However,” the letter continued, “none of these initiatives are mature ... These initiatives will take multiple years to drive tangible improvements at the floor level.” The board urged a focus on “rapidly improving” the safety systems. The growing concerns grew out of a staff review at the end of July of safety systems at three of LANL’s principal nuclear facilities: the Plutonium Facility, the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility, and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility.Eggenberger said the board tries to keep things as simple as possible.“DOE has their orders for how the facilities are to be operated; they’re written down,” he said. “All we do is read what they’re supposed to do and go and see if they’re doing it.”At the Plutonium Facility, the five-member staff review found shortcomings in the Instrument Air System, which supports the safe functioning of the ventilation system. The report also found a fire protection system in the vault water baths to be inadequately defined, documented and assured. The system is supposed to protect stored plutonium containers from overheating in case of a fire in the vaults.At the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility, the safety board staff found an inadequate level of inspections, among an extensive list of safety deficiencies.The report on Aug. 31 also included a critique of several safety issues in the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility.A letter on Oct. 16, summarizing the current concerns, concluded with a 60-day deadline to provide a report of specific actions that were being taken to address the situation. This was followed a week later by another 60-day reporting deadline for NNSA to provide “a safety rationale for continuing the operation of CMR” and “a detailed schedule of NNSA’s actions to assure safe operation of this facility.”The CMR is among the laboratory’s oldest facilities. A replacement is under construction, but the future funding for the replacement is uncertain.In late September, the laboratory suspended some of its high-risk activities in the Plutonium Facility, but the laboratory said some of those operations were resumed within a week.“We’re a positive-looking organization,” Eggenberger said. “We want it to work, because it’s in the best interest of the United States.”The safety board’s public hearing will begin at 6 p.m. on Dec. 5 at the Duane W. Smith Auditorium, 1400 Diamond Drive in Los Alamos. There will be an opportunity for public comment. The meeting will be recorded on video and the video will be available after the meeting on the board’s website, www.dnfsb.gov.