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New Federal investigation into error in shipment of nuclear materials from Los Alamos National Laboratory

‘Absolutely unacceptable’ error in shipment of nuclear materials prompts probe, By Rebecca Moss | The New Mexican, Jun 24, 2017 

Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing a new federal investigation for shipping nuclear materials out of state by aircraft, in violation of federal law, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which called the error “absolutely unacceptable.”

The agency released a statement Friday, saying the lab had mislabeled shipments of “special nuclear materials” — a term used for radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium and uranium — that were headed last week to the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The shipments were packaged for ground cargo transportation, but instead were shipped by air, which is “a mode of transportation not authorized by Federal regulations,” according to the statement.

 Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, referred questions to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The incident follows similar violations at the lab this spring involving mislabeled chemicals and hazardous waste, including nuclear materials. It also comes as the lab has faced a fresh wave of scrutiny from federal officials over whether it is capable of handling increasing quantities of plutonium as the nation ramps up its production of plutonium pits — the grapefruit-sized cores that trigger nuclear bombs — over the next 15 years at a Los Alamos facility.

The protocols for shipping sensitive nuclear materials by air are significantly different than those for ground shipments. More sensitive climate and pressure controls must be in place to transport plutonium by air, and special external controls are required to guard against an accident during flight or a radiation release, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said the incident didn’t lead to any loss of radioactive materials or contamination.

The agency said it will investigate “to determine the root cause of this incident, as well as procedures to avoid future incidents of this type,” and said it intends to hold the responsible parties accountable under the full terms of the lab’s management contract, currently held by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium led by the University of California, Bechtel and other corporations.

The contract is currently up for bid, a decision made by the federal government following a series of management and safety issues. The lab is expected to be under new management in 2018.

But significant safety lapses continue.

In April, work was paused at the lab’s plutonium facility after a worker handled an unlabeled waste container that ignited, causing a small fire that gave one worker second-degree burns. In May, the lab failed to accurately document the pH levels of liquid hazardous waste shipped in drums to Colorado — the second time such an incident had occurred in six months. The waste was far more acidic than documented on its labels, which means it was likely more volatile. Those incidents triggered reviews of workplace and emergency protocols.

The lab also informed the New Mexico Environment Department this spring that it had been storing two drums containing nitrate salts in a special containment area for months, believing they were part of a volatile waste stream, only to learn the canisters were not dangerous.

These drums highlight one of the most notorious mispackaging mistakes in the lab’s recent history. A nitrate salt drum containing items laced with radioactive waste was packed with the wrong type of absorbent kitty litter at Los Alamos, causing a chemical reaction that led the drum to burst in the salt caverns of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February 2014.

The event led to a low-level radiological release and shut down the underground nuclear waste facility for nearly three years, at a cost of over $1 billion.

At a hearing in Santa Fe earlier this month, federal officials raised questions about how the lab would deal with “unprecedented” levels of plutonium, in order to build as many as 80 pits per year by 2030 as part of the nation’s goals of modernizing its nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which advises the Department of Energy and the president, asked federal and lab officials about a lack of foresight as the program moves forward, as well as aging infrastructure at the lab. Questions also were raised about the lab consistently failing to meet expectations in its nuclear criticality safety program — which is meant to ensure serious nuclear accidents don’t occur and potentially cause a widespread release of radiation…….http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/absolutely-unacceptable-error-in-shipment-of-nuclear-materials-prompts-probe/article_5c845fee-4b05-51e8-9f19-efa63afee7a9.html

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June 26, 2017 - Posted by | safety, USA

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