PF-4 operations slowly return to normal

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LANL > Stand-down gives time for procedural review

By The Staff

The Plutonium Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory is slowly returning to normal operations.

According to spokesman Fred DeSousa, “the lab is continuing to implement its plan to resume full programmatic operations at PF-4. We are resuming work in phases based on the priority of the work and our level of satisfaction that the processes and procedures are in good shape. Some work resumed as early as two weeks ago.”

At the end of June, LANL Director Charlie McMillan announced that certain work operations at PF-4 would temporarily pause at the facility.

A Department of Energy Inspector General audit reiterated concerns that watchdogs and a federal oversight board have long expressed about the lab’s main plutonium facility — which sits atop a fault line — being able to withstand an earthquake.

And the Las Conchas Fire that burned its way to the edges of lab property two years ago highlighted the dangers of storing thousands of barrels of toxic waste on-site.

The audit pushed the lab to move more quickly in securing the plutonium lab (PF-4). It also asks for more effective fire protection for the barrels, which are scheduled to be removed by the end of next year.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also mentioned its concerns about PF-4 in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in late June.

“The staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board performed a review of the Criticality Safety Program at Los Alamos National Laboratory in May 2013. This review identified significant non-compliances with applicable Department of Energy requirements and industry standards in the implementation of the Criticality Safety Program.

In addition, this review identified criticality safety concerns stemming from weaknesses in conduct of operations at the Plutonium Facility. The board notes that some of these deficiencies are long standing and indicate flaws in the federal oversight and contractor assurance systems,” DNFSB chair Peter Winokur wrote to Moniz.

While much has been reported on how PF-4 would deal with a potential seismic issue, the DNFSB report also pointed out a rather alarming statistic regarding fissile material handler training and certification.
The number of infractions identified in the first six months of 2013 nearly matches the yearly totals from 2012 and 2011 (15 in the first half of 2013, 15 in all of 2012, and 16 in all of 2011).

And of the 15 criticality safety infractions identified in PF-4 this year, nine were identified by LANS personnel, five were identified by Los Alamos Field Office personnel, and one was identified by the Board’s staff during its review.

The report said, “the staff is concerned that the significant proportion of infractions identified by oversight personnel may indicate that facility personnel should be more familiar with and sensitive to criticality safety requirements.

“The overall increase in infractions this year may indicate a half-life of the fissile material handler training and certification effort, which took place after the significant criticality infraction in August 2011. The staff believes that it would be prudent to consider criticality safety refresher training for fissile material handlers.”

Back in early July, this was gleaned from the Los Alamos Site Office Report to the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board:
•All programmatic operations that involve nuclear materials are paused until further notice.
• Material movement and process operations required to place nuclear materials in a safe and stable configuration are allowed but require specific approval from the Principal Associate Director for Weapons Programs.
• Facility support activities (e.g. surveillances, glove changes, filter changes, and removal of low-level waste) are permitted but must be approved by the TA-55 Facility Operations Director (FOD).
• Laboratory construction, reconfiguration, and cleanout activities with no potential to impact the configuration of nuclear materials are allowed with the approval of the TA-55 FOD.
• Laboratory construction, reconfiguration, and cleanout activities with the potential to impact the configuration of nuclear materials are paused; however, release of individual activities with a specific duration may be approved based on rigorous evaluation and justification that includes approval by the laboratory director.
• Walkdowns of Plutonium Facility laboratories and processes to evaluate procedures and criticality related controls are permitted provided they can be performed without affecting the safe and stable configuration of nuclear materials.
• Tours of the facility and individual laboratories are permitted.