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LANL rolls out plan to correct pit handling errors

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By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Pit Technologies Division has developed a plan designed to prevent the mistakes workers made handling nuclear materials earlier this year, an inspection report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said.

“They developed a criteria and review approach document to assess all of their operations through plant walk-downs and discussions with fissile material handlers. The assessment evaluated three areas: compliance and usability of the criticality safety postings; worker engagement and understanding; and best practices and areas of improvement from the perspective of the ‘voice of the worker,’” a statement in a March 30 inspection report said.

A lab spokesman said the review took two days, and that it was productive.

“The program conducted a safety review and a limited operational pause over a two-day period.  Safety reviews are aimed at getting workers together to discuss best practices and safety issues,” the lab spokesman said.  

The Pit Technologies Division also required that employees who weren’t involved in the operations take part as a way to  “ensure objective evaluation.”

The review was completed last Wednesday, and since then,  93 “fissile material operations” have resumed at LANL’s plutonium pit manufacturing facility, where the violations in nuclear material movement occurred.

However, seven tasks have not resumed, after new discoveries were made regarding how nuclear material was handled that could lead to more safety issues.

The March 30 DNFSB report  cited two incidents, one where fissile material was placed inside a half of a plutonium pit, a move that was against safety protocols. Another incident occurred when lab personnel placed a plutonium pit in a glove box that was not approved to hold the pit.

A spokesman for the lab described the review as a valuable tool for continuous improvement.

“These two process deviations and the two-day safety review have not slowed down our pit operations in any meaningful way, and – to the contrary – are actually helping us to further refine the safety and efficiency of our processes and procedures,” the lab spokesman said.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory contains the only facility in the nation where plutonium pits are made. The pits are used in the triggering systems of certain nuclear weapons. The Department of Energy came out with a plan for the lab to ramp up production of the pits in the coming years.

“The Laboratory’s criticality safety program continues to improve as evidenced by an increase in workers self-reporting process deviations and by a reduced rate of such deviation occurrences,” a lab spokesman said. “Reporting process deviations are part of maintaining the Lab’s safety margin. Given the critically safety margins now in place, we have already greatly reduced our radiological risks.”  

The March 30 report also included an item on a federal oversight inspection National Nuclear Security Administration officials did at the lab. The inspection was to observe whether lab personnel were following the National Nuclear Security

Administration’s “enhanced oversight plan.” While on the inspection, National Nuclear Security Administration’s field office, personnel discovered some lab personnel weren’t adhering to the plan’s “Plan of the Day” routine – a protocol in the plan the National Nuclear Security Administration wants the lab to follow.

“An accurate plan of the day is necessary to ensure work activities are authorized, conflicting work is precluded, and supporting resources are available,” the report said. “An accurate plan of the day can also be a useful tool for laboratory management and NNSA oversight personnel to effectively plan work observations necessary to strengthen conduct of operations.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Field Office staff plan to correct the mistakes through future discussions with LANL personnel in future briefings.