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Safety board visits LANL

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By John Severance

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is in town, conducting its annual site visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

According to lab spokesman Fred DeSousa, four of the five members of the board are on the visit along with several staff members. They met with lab and Site Office staff Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We are briefing them on their topics of interest, including the status of PF-4 improvements, transuranic waste operations and emergency response,” DeSousa said. “The board will tour PF-4 and our Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility. In this case, there is no public hearing scheduled for this site visit.”

The main topic of conversation likely will be PF-4.

NNSA acting administrator Bruce Held sent a letter to DNFSB chairman Peter Winokur, regarding the conduct of operations and the implementation of criticality safety controls at PF-4.

In June, lab director Charlie McMillan paused all programmatic activities at the facility and in early August some of those activities resumed.

But not all.

Held’s letter detailed the corrective actions the lab has taken in regards to PF-4 and by Dec. 6, Held said the NNSA will provide the DNFSB with a fully developed plan and an updated status of progress.

According to the letter dated Aug. 15, the plan includes:
• Actions that will be completed within 30 days to ensure PF-4 operability and compliance and significantly reduce the potential for programmatic operations to challenge criticality safety controls.
• Actions that will be completed by Sept. 30, to rapidly expand the pool of qualified criticality safety analysts and control the deliberate resumption of activities with low potential to challenge criticality safety controls but have a high programmatic impact. And then by Dec. 31, they hope to further expand the controls. Opportunities will be identified for continuous improvement of criticality safety in PF-4.
• Longer-term actions to resume remaining operations, continue comprehensive operational improvement, and provide an independent evaluation of the state of criticality controls and PF-4 conduct of operations.

A Department of Energy Inspector General audit reiterated concerns that watchdogs and DNFSB have long expressed about the lab’s main plutonium facility — which sits atop a fault line — and its ability 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.

“DNFSB also identified criticality safety concerns stemming from weaknesses in conduct of operations at PF-4. The board noted that some of these deficiencies were long standing and indicated flaws in the federal oversight and contractor assurance systems,” Winokur wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest 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 as having occurred at 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.