Safety board addresses aging nuclear facilities

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By John Severance

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board issued its annual report to Congress earlier this month, addressing the aging defense nuclear installations including the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Facility in Los Alamos.

Design plans have been in place for a replacement structure, but estimates have soared up to $5.8 billion after being just $800 million in 2007.

“We are committed to replacing the existing CMR facility with a new, modern complex that is safer, more secure and more efficient,” NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said in a statement. “As we proceed with the design, we will do so in a way that takes into account 21st century nuclear safety requirements and makes efficient use of the taxpayer’s money. As part of that effort NNSA and Los Alamos are working to evaluate every available option.”

Ground was broken on the CMRR project in January of 2006 and it has since been beset by controversy and funding issues.

The report, meanwhile, was critical of the Department of Energy for relying on the aging defense nuclear facilities.

“DOE continues to rely on aging facilities to carry out hazardous production missions,” Peter Winokur, the chairman of the safety board, wrote in the report. “One of the examples of this persistent problem includes the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility at Los Alamos.

“It requires significant capital expenditures for replacement or for repair and upgrade of key systems. The board understands that in several instances replacement facilities have been authorized by Congress to address this aging infrastructure. However facilities may not be ready for another decade.”

In its report, the safety board was especially worried about the possibility of a seismic event at the Los Alamos lab.

In the past three months, there have been two earthquakes just under 3.0, according to the U.S. Geological Survey within 50 miles of Los Alamos. But lab officials have insisted that there were no seismic tremors on LANL grounds.

Peter Roberts, the operator of the Los Alamos Laboratory seismic network, said they have eight stations to record activity while the U.S. Geological Survey has just one in the area.
Still, the board has been working with the NNSA on implementing a plan to reduce the risk posed by a seismic event.

In 2010, NNSA took the following actions:
• Designed an automatic equipment shutdown to reduce ignition sources in a seismic event.
• Eliminated unnecessary ignition sources inside glove boxes.
• Installed fire-rated safes to protect special nuclear material.
• Tested plutonium containers to demonstrate their ability to protect nuclear material in a fire.
• Scoped seismic upgrades to fire suppression and active confinement ventilation systems.
• Repaired the main plutonium facility fire barrier wall and robustly packed some 700 kilograms of special nuclear material.

The board raised significant safety issues in letters to the NNSA in 2007 and 2008 and requested that NNSA provide a safety rationale if it continued operations beyond 2010.

NNSA approved a revised documented safety analysis and technical safety requirements for the facility in June 2010, but it did not remedy a post-seismic fire scenario.

The board wrote that DOE has made progress.

Among the LANL highlights:
• NNSA completed a campaign to address over pressurization for a large population of containers storing Plutonium 238.
• The board identified opportunities to reduce the actual and allowed quantities of material at risk present in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building. In response, the NNSA has significantly changed the approach to managing the control of material at risk in the facility and it can no longer exceed the DOE evaluation guideline.
• The board continued to follow closely the actions to improve the lab’s ability to respond to fires and other emergencies. Responder training and nuclear facility awareness initiatives appear to have significantly improved the capability for fire and emergency response to the lab’s nuclear facilities.
• The board observed three Integrated Nuclear Planning meetings focused on waste management capabilities, programmatic activities and safety posture improvements for the plutonium facility and other high priority lab facilities and projects.

This was the Defense Nuclear Safety Board’s 21st report to Congress. The board is an independent executive branch agency responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Energy and President regarding public health and safety issues at the DOE’s defense nuclear facilities.

Chairman Peter S. Winokur, vice chairman Jessie H. Roberson and members Larry W. Brown, Joseph F. Bader and John E. Mansfield comprise the safety board.

“We recognize that the President is proposing significant investments in our enterprise during a time of severe economic challenges for our country, which is why we are working to improve the way we do business,” LaVera said.