LANL struggles with fission materials issues in March

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By Tris DeRoma

An overflowing bathroom sink that leaked a few gallons of water into a basement where nuclear waste is stored and an incident where a manager discovered possible fissionable material being stored inside half a plutonium pit sparked federal and lab inquiries in March at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium processing facility. 

The most recent incident in early March triggered a safety investigation by the National Nuclear Security Administration.  

Water from an overflowing sink caused a few gallons of water to leak into a basement at LANL’s plutonium manufacturing facility, where drums of transuranic waste are stored. 

In a weekly safety report from a federal oversight board about the issue, it was reported NNSA officials are concerned what would have happened if liquids that are capable of setting off a fission reaction came in contact with the drums, instead of water.

“NNSA Field Office personnel are examining whether this result challenges assumptions related to spills of fissile solutions from the first floor and into the basement (in places where liquids could accumulate other than on the floor), are currently uncontrolled,” a statement in a safety report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board read.  

A spokesperson for the laboratory said the water leak did not pose any danger to personnel or the community at large.

“During the week of March 5, 2018, a small amount of potable water, a few gallons, leaked into a basement area of TA-55. There was no criticality safety issue,” LANL Spokesperson Kevin Roark said. “The basement area of TA-55 is specifically designed to isolate and contain water leaks. There was no radioactive contamination associated with this water spill, and it did not occur in an area of the facility where radioactive materials are processed.”

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also reported March 9 that plutonium pit manufacturing workers left “samples” inside half a plutonium pit shell, a practice that violated safety rules governing movement of nuclear materials at the lab’s plutonium pit manufacturing facility. A facility manager spotted the error during a routine inspection, and enacted safety protocols. 

Workers left the room while lab criticality safety personnel investigated. Criticality personnel determined no one was in danger, but a review of the safety error was conducted, and the glove box the shell was inside of was put out of service. Plutonium pits are about the size of a softball and are used as triggering mechanisms for nuclear weapons.

“At the fact-finding, it became clear that this was another situation where facility personnel were caught in the error trap of the differing definitions of ‘staging’ and ‘storage,’” a safety board inspector said in a report. 

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board reported on workers’ confusion between the terms “staging” and “storage” in 2017 after lab personnel discovered plutonium-238 feed materials inside a basement safe in 2017. According to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report, the materials were stored in the safe for about two months. 

Roark said the lab is working to correct the confusion workers are having with the “staging” and “storage” definitions.

“The laboratory’s goal is to identify and control hazards throughout all our functions and appropriately engage workers and management. Processes are in place to assure that operational teams understand limit sets and terminology through small group briefings,” Roark said. “The briefings also provide an opportunity for continuous improvement. Our aim is to operate within defined safety envelopes with well understood risks, hazards and controls for each activity, and provide the necessary services that meet the demands of the dynamic nature of our work.”

Greg Mello, executive director for an environmental and nuclear safety group called the Los Alamos Study Group, said the incidents demonstrated that the culture of safety must be better ingrained into the work routines at LANL.

“LANL has a ways to go on criticality safety,” Mello said. “…Overall, LANL needs to internalize a real zero-defect-in-safety mentality. They really need to reach for the stars on safety and compliance as a scientists would for the sake of science.”