Hearing looms for troubled plutonium facility

-A A +A
By Tris DeRoma

As LANL continues toward its goal of ramping up plutonium production at Tech Area 55, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has called for a June hearing in Santa Fe regarding LANL’s troubled plutonium manufacturing facility, known as “PF-4.” LANL wants to boost its production of plutonium cores from 20 a year to 80 by 2027, but safety issues connected to work procedures and the age of the facility has caused concern with some government agencies.
In April a fire broke out at the facility during “housekeeping day,” when workers attempting to dispose of materials that were capable of igniting through contact with air caught fire when they emptied them into a bag.
“Upon discovery, an operator attempted to place the bag into a metal container when the bag conflagrated (caught fire), causing minor burns to several fingers. He then pushed the cart containing this material to the front of the room away from the glove box line and smothered the fire using an appropriate handheld extinguisher. The operators called 911, exited the room, and made additional notifications in accordance with procedure,” read a statement from the Safety Board’s report on the incident. The material turned out to be lanthanum nickel hydride, which was used in activities at the facility 20 years ago. The material was described as  non-radiological.
The upcoming safety board hearing, which is being held in Santa Fe June 7 and will be public, was planned long before the April accident, but will still revolve around the same safety issues that seem to keep arising at the plant.
The board is seeking to get an understanding of LANL’s current safety procedures and protocols at the plutonium facility, which lately has come under heavy criticism by government agencies as LANL works toward its goal of producing 80 plutonium pits a year by 2027.
“There’s a heavy sense of frustration about Los Alamos,” Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group said of his fact-finding visits to Washington. “They are not impressed with B.S. about science. The lab thinks they are impressing more people than they are. Other sites in the weapons complex are beginning to wonder if some Los Alamos missions should go to their sites.”
The Los Alamos Study Group is an environmental and nuclear safety watchdog group based in New Mexico.
Hearing agenda items include “risk reduction efforts” LANL has planned for the facility and what LANL’s “overall plutonium strategy” is.
The board will also be questioning LANL officials on how much progress LANL has made on goals outlined in the DNFSB’s “Tech 39” report, which was published in 2015. Goals outlined in the report emphasized better use of specially-designed waste storage locations throughout the plutonium facility and better attention to reducing the presence of “at-risk materials” at the facility and properly disposing of the resulting waste used in the manufacture of plutonium cores.
Though projects to replace aging equipment at the plant continue, President Donald Trump’s recently released budget calls for no new “underground modules” to be built at the plant, additions that are crucial to LANL’s 80 pits-a-year goal.  
Members of the DNFSB could not be reached for comment.
The hearing will be open to the public, and members of many of New Mexico’s nuclear watchdog groups plan to be at the hearing, which is being held at the Santa Fe Community Center starting at 5 p.m.
Mello hopes the hearing will shed light on what’s been happening at the plant in recent years.
“We hope it will bring attention to longstanding safety deficiencies at PF-4, and lead to their progressive resolution,” Mello said. “The laboratory, despite the efforts it has made, has still not adequately prioritized the safe operation and maintenance of its plutonium facility.”
Mello, whose group has been monitoring and studying the lab for years, wants the lab to fix what his group sees as fundamental problems first before it continues on with its goal of ramping up plutonium production.
“Instead of pushing back against deferred maintenance and safety improvements that require significant capital investment, the lab should make those investments,” Mello said. “It’s not glamorous and it’s not science per se, but I think it’s been hard for the lab to recognize the importance of very non-glamorous preventative awareness.”
The Defence Nuclear Facilities Board was created by congress and is tasked with advising the president and the secretary of energy with issues of health and safety at all of the Department of Energy’s defense nuclear facilities.
The hearing will be June 7 at the Santa Fe Community Building, 201 West Marcy Street The hearing begins at 5 p.m. The public is invited to speak at 8:30 p.m.