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NNSA says LANL workers faced no danger in latest incident

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By Tris DeRoma

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the workers casting a plutonium pit were not in any danger of causing a nuclear chain reaction when they violated safety rules governing the casting process.

The public was not in danger either.

The incident happened on Aug. 17. According to a report on the incident by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, workers casting a plutonium pit failed to accurately document the movement of the pit, causing the pit to be moved into an area where there was already plutonium present, putting the amount of plutonium allowed in a certain area over the safety limit.

Five days later, when workers moved the pit, they discovered the error, and moved other nuclear material  “for product quality and security” according to the report. According to established training criteria, they were instead supposed to declare a potential change in procedure.

Lab management informed the NNSA field office of the incident and the actions taken. Management informed NNSA officials that they disqualified the workers involved and introduced new rules and procedures. The new rules require that all movements of nuclear material be authorized through the casting room group leader.

The new rules will also require that all group leaders personally observe at least three nuclear material movements a shift. The new rules will also temporarily require paper documentation of all movements of nuclear material at the plutonium facility. Casting operations were also briefly suspended on Aug. 17 then resumed.

“The amount of material involved was well within parameters known to be safe. At no time was there any risk of an inadvertent criticality,” an NNSA spokesperson said. “There was also no risk of injury or exposure to the workforce or public.”

The NNSA also said that redundant safeguards in the system also helped with protecting the workers and the public.
“NNSA requires its contractors to meet the highest standards of safety while working with hazardous and nuclear materials. At each of our laboratories, sites, and production plants, there are multiple layers of defense to prevent accidents involving these materials, the NNSA spokesperson said. “These multiple layers of defense account for the fact that people will occasionally make mistakes and that equipment will occasionally malfunction.”

Greg Mello, executive director of the nuclear and environmental safety organization the Los Alamos Study Group, said if there wasn’t any danger of criticality, then why do the rules governing the movement of nuclear material exist.

“The point is they violated their own procedures and operating manual. If they have a bad operating manual, they need to change it,” Mello said. “...NNSA, in this statement, is encouraging a scofflaw attitude which has been at the core of so many problems at Los Alamos. People don’t follow the rules, and it gets everybody in trouble.”

The casting was supposed to be a milestone development in restarting Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium pit program, which had been dormant for the last four years.  Lab Director Charlie McMillan closed the facility in June 2013 because of “LANL’s inability to address criticality safety concerns,” according to a July 16, 2015 DOE memorandum. The laboratory is the only facility in the Department of Energy’s nuclear enterprise where plutonium pit production is performed.

EM Field Office gets contract extension
The Department of Energy has given the company that manages and operates Los Alamos National Laboratory a six-month extension on its legacy cleanup bridge contract, the department announced Tuesday.

The cleanup contract extension will enable a smooth transition to a new legacy cleanup contract, the DOE said in a news release.

The contract’s work scope is just for cleaning up and remediating waste within the lab’s 36 square miles of property.

“The contract extension to the Los Alamos Legacy Cleanup Bridge Contract (LCBC) will enable the continuation of key scope activities and help ensure a smooth transition to the new Los Alamos Legacy Cleanup Contract (LLCC),” Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office spokesperson Steven Horak said in a statement.

This contract is separate from the operations and management contract, which is expected to go out for bid later this year.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is working on a draft request for proposals for the operations and management contract.

The legacy cleanup contract for Los Alamos National Security will now end March 31, 2018.

The total value of the six-month contract extension is about $65 million, according to the DOE.