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Safety shortcomings persist at Los Alamos nuclear laboratory

Safety problems at a Los Alamos laboratory delay U.S. nuclear warhead testing and production A facility that handles the cores of U.S. nuclear weapons has been mostly closed since 2013 over its inability to control worker safety risks, Science, 

By The Center for Public IntegrityR. Jeffrey SmithPatrick MalonJun. 30, 2017 “……. The shortcomings persist

Los Alamos’s progress in improving its criticality safety since the shutdown began has been fitful, and the dissonance between safety experts and its top managers has stubbornly persisted.

McMillan initially promised to train fissile material handlers to be more heedful of plutonium-handling perils, for example, and to bring the inventory and safety documents guiding their work up to date. In an email to lab employees, he promised that a “pause” lasting less than a year wouldn’t cause “any significant impact to mission deliverables.”

But at the end of 2013, a new group of safety experts, commissioned by the lab to guide its reforms, delivered bad news just as the lab was attempting to restart operations at PF-4. “Management has not yet fully embraced its commitment to criticality safety,” the group said, according to a copy of its report obtained by CPI.

It also listed nine weaknesses in the lab’s safety culture that were rooted in a “production focus” to meet work deadlines. Workers say these deadlines are typically linked to financial bonuses. Los Alamos’s leaders, the report said, had made the right promises, but failed to alter the underlying safety culture. “The focus appears to remain short-term and compliance oriented rather than based on a strategic plan,” the report said.

In May 2014, Peter Winokur, who at the time chaired the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, weighed in with a separate, written warning to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. He said McMillan was improperly trying to restart “high-risk” PF-4 operations without first carefully setting new, written, safety benchmarks for the lab’s plutonium work.

The NNSA head, Klotz, alerted the Secretary of Energy, Moniz, and the two of them flew to Los Alamos to meet with McMillan, a man known for both charm and hubris. “Los Alamos is a legend,” McMillan has boasted in a promotional video. “It’s an icon. And of course, because of that, everybody notices what we do here; and we’re held to a very high standard.”

Moniz said he told McMillan personally that “I was not entirely satisfied with the reactions of some of his senior managers.” As a result, he said, “actions were taken,” without offering details.

But progress was not swift.

The NNSA, in its annual evaluation of Los Alamos’ overall performance for fiscal year 2014, judged the criticality safety program to be “below expectations” with deficiencies “similar to issues identified in past” evaluations; it particularly faulted the labels the lab had placed on nuclear materials and the guides the lab had prepared for workers performing plutonium handling chores.

Some of these shortfalls persisted in 2015, and new ones were discovered. On May 6, 2015, for example, the NNSA sent Los Alamos’ managing contractors a letter again criticizing the lab for being slow to fix criticality risks. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which summarized the letter in one of its weekly reports, said “there are currently more than 60 unresolved infractions,” many present for months “or even years.”

In January and again in April 2015, workers discovered tubes of liquids containing plutonium in seldom-used rooms at PF-4, with labels that made it hard to know how much plutonium they held or where they’d come from, the safety board said. In May, workers packed a drum of nuclear waste with too much plutonium, posing a criticality risk, and in the ensuing probe, it became clear that they were relying on inaccurate and confusing documentation. Safety experts had miscalculated how much plutonium the drum could safely hold.

“These issues are very similar to the issues that contributed to the LANL Director’s decision to pause operations in June of 2013,” safety board inspectors wrote.

Asked about the persistence of the Los Alamos lab’s problems, former NNSA director Miller smiled and said her colleagues at the nuclear oversight agency sometimes told the following joke: If Washington sent all three of America’s nuclear weapons labs an order to study how to “jump,” they would all respond differently. Lawrence Livermore, she said, would convene a conference and produce a three-inch stack of reports about “jumping.” Officials at Sandia would simply jump.

But at Los Alamos, she said, officials would instinctively respond with a “**ck you, we’re not jumping.”

This timeline traces the long and troubled history of safety deficiencies at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility by detailing the timing of some 40 government reports and expert presentations spanning the past 11 years………..

July 1, 2017 - Posted by | safety, USA

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