LAB NOTES: Hot hands reported in Plutonium Facility

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By Roger Snodgrass

A federal report from November cited unexpectedly high radiation readings for plutonium workers at the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.An occurrence report issued by the Department of Energy’s Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) said full-body readings were high, but the levels were considered to be in proportion to increased throughput over the previous three months. Extremity dosimetry, exposure to fingers, however, showed a very large increase, the summary stated, “that was not expected.”“The apparent October extremity dose for the highest exposed Actinide Process Chemistry Group Individual is the largest monthly dose observed in the previous 10 years and over five times the average of the highest monthly extremity doses for this organization,” the report continued.A parallel report dated Nov. 23 by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board and made public Monday also noted the spike and explained more of the context.TA-55 began processing high-Americium residues earlier this year, in a long-term effort to clean up leftover materials from the nuclear weapons production pipeline.The processing accelerated in September in order to be able to “place operations in a safe state,” while responding to concerns that arose relating to “criticality issues.”Criticality is the rare possibility of a spontaneous chain reaction, caused by the proximity and inter-relationship of nuclear materials, one of the main concerns of the nuclear safety board.Assessing and re-evaluating the criticality issues caused the restriction of most nuclear activities at the facility, according to the laboratory Communication Office, when a cessation of some activities was reported.The most recent DNFSB site report available, dated Nov. 30, noted that, “A LANL corporate partner” was providing two “much needed additional criticality safety engineers,” (early in December). Along with another team of criticality safety engineers, the site representative wrote, “This should alleviate a process choke point and help expedite safe resumption.”In its previous weekly review of nuclear safety conditions at the laboratory, the DNFSB site representative stated that the appropriate measures had been taken to prevent large increases in whole-body doses during the campaign to reduce the Americium residues, but that the exposure of extremities, or hands, “was not addressed.”LANL discovered the readings that they considered unexpectedly high, including one that was the highest in a decade. The DNFSB report stated, “LANL is reviewing the adequacy of radiological controls for this type and intensity of operations.”

The HSS report said DOE’s Health Physics Measurements Group would continue to evaluate the dose calculations and would prepare an official dose report.

  Volunteer departures short of goal The Associated Press reported 65 Los Alamos National Laboratory employees changed their mind about leaving during the one-week period following their decision to volunteer for departure. A total of 495 Los Alamos National Laboratory employees had originally stepped forward to accept the lab’s restructuring plan.Managers were scheduled to tell the remaining 430 employees late last week if their application had been accepted. For those who are accepted, Thursday, Jan. 10 will be their last day. The reductions, ascribed to budget shortfalls and the need for greater flexibility, will be at least 70 employees short of the minimum number of 500-750 sought by the laboratory.With the omnibus appropriation package agreed upon last week and approved by both the House and Senate, the budget outlook has not resulted in the “worst case scenario” feared by laboratory managers.

On Friday, lab director Michael Anastasio said after the first phase of the current restructuring plan, the laboratory would decide what would be needed next.