Board addresses saftey concerns at LANL

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By Tris DeRoma

As the Los Alamos National Laboratory prepares to ramp up production of plutonium pits at its PF-4 facility, an oversight board created by Congress held a public hearing in Santa Fe Wednesday to gather information about whether the lab was capable of reaching its manufacturing goals in a timely and safe manner.

Board members asked lab and National Nuclear Security Administration officials several questions during the six-hour hearing about LANL’s continual non-compliance with its Nuclear Criticality Safety Program.

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board member Joyce Connery noted at the hearing how the LANL Director Charlie McMillan paused operations in 2013 at the site after deficiencies were found in the lab’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program.

Connery also said that in 2016, LANL’s criticality program, a program designed to stop nuclear and radiation accidents, was still showing non-compliance.

NNSA Associate Administrator for Safety Infrastructure and Operations James McConnell explained to the board the reasons behind the pause in 2013 and the non-compliance.

“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.

“First off, we had concerns about the number of people at the laboratory who have this very unique skill set to do criticality safety,” McConnell said. “While they’re making very significant improvements here at Los Alamos, the number is still less than where we want it.”

He noted that the lab hired five criticality safety experts last year and plans to hire six this year.

McConnell also admitted to 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, they simply stop operations until analyses are updated, McConnell said. He 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 Department of Energy nuclear complex 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,” he said.

McConnell also told the board he expects LANL to be in satisfactory compliance “soon.”

Assistant LANL Director Richard Kacich assured the board that criticality safety has been an area of “high attention for some time.”

“It is safe, it is getting better, and it’s only a matter of time before we achieve the standards that both we, and the department, expect,” Kacich said.

Board members told NNSA and LANL officials that it was important they get their criticality safety expert numbers up if they want to meet their future plutonium pit quotas.

The pits, about the size of a softball, and are used to trigger nuclear weapons. The lab plans to increase its plutonium pit production from two a year to 10 in 2022. The lab’s ultimate goal is to start producing 80 pits a year by 2030.

“It is a crucial area for you to be able to move forward,” Connery said.
NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Director Kim Lebak said that they have struggled with the lab over this issue. Not having enough criticality experts at the lab comes down to what a specialized field it is, and the rigorous training involved. It often comes down to taking experts from other nuclear sites in the enterprise. Lately, the NNSA has looked to universities to help shore up its staff.

“They (the lab) are starting to work with a handful of the universities to try and grow the skill set indigenously,” Lebak said.

The lack of criticality safety experts is a national problem, McConnell said.

“It’s a broad problem,” McConnell said. “I told my rising college senior that if he wants job security and a high-paying job he might want to think about becoming a criticality safety analyst.”

The need for more safety workers was highlighted in April when one contractor on a cleanup operation at PF-4 received minor burns when non-nuclear materials contained in a bag caught fire.

While the lab suffers in a lack of safety experts, the lab has improved in others areas.

Major construction projects aimed at boosting the reliability and safety of plutonium operations at

Los Alamos amount to an investment of about $3 billion, McConnell said.


Over the past four years, an additional $350 million has been spent on maintenance and smaller projects to improve safety and infrastructure. An additional $95 million will be spent in the coming year on the fire system, ventilation and other upgrades, officials said.

“The safety and security of the workforce, our facilities and the public remain our top priority,” McConnell said.

The hearing also included a public information session where members of many of the state’s nuclear watchdog groups came to speak.

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group, told the board that there is no more need for the plutonium pit program and that it should be shut down.

“The missions that are driving these requirements at PF-4 are contested and often disrespected by Congress,” Mello said.

Mello told the board how the Navy and the U.S. Air Force has said they don’t want the weapons the plutonium pits are supposedly for.

“We have no actual need to make pits, not now not in the foreseeable lifetime of the facility,” Mello said.

Some members of the public were critical of the NNSA and the LANL turning to universities for qualified people.

“Even if they did find people in academia, that isn’t going to happen overnight,” Jay Coughlan, of Nuclear Watch said. “It doesn’t begin to address the contemporaneous need now.”

The board has no regulatory powers, but it does publish safety reports and other correspondence on its website at dnsfb.gov. It can suggest routes of action to take to  the DOE and congress regarding the nuclear defense facilities it oversees within the DOE’s nuclear enterprise.  

“Our goal for the hearing was to gather information from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s strategy to ensure the hazards to the public and workers posed by storage and processing of special nuclear materials within the plutonium facility is safely managed now and into the future,” Board Chair Sean Sullivan said. “...The board will consider the information gathered this evening to inform any actions we may take.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.