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USA nuclear warhead testing is delayed by safety problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory

A separate Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report in February detailed the magnitude of the shortfall:

Los Alamos’ dangerous work, it said, demands 27 fully qualified criticality safety engineers.

The lab has 10

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 

In mid-2013, four federal nuclear safety experts brought an alarming message to the top official in charge of America’s warhead production: Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s sole site for making and testing a key nuclear bomb part, wasn’t taking needed safety precautions. The lab, they said, was ill-prepared to prevent an accident that could kill lab workers, and potentially others nearby.

Some safety infractions had already occurred at the lab that year. But Neile Miller, who was then the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, says those experts specifically told her that Los Alamos didn’t have enough personnel who knew how to handle plutonium so it didn’t accidentally go “critical” and start an uncontrolled chain reaction.

Such chain reactions generate intense bursts of deadly radiation, and over the last half-century have claimed nearly two dozen lives. The precise consequences, Miller said in a recent interview, “did not need an explanation. You don’t want an accident involving criticality and plutonium.” Indeed, Miller said, criticality “is one of those trigger words” that immediately gets the attention of those responsible for preventing a nuclear weapons disaster.

With two of the four experts remaining in her Washington office overlooking the national mall, Miller picked up the phone and called the lab’s director, Charles McMillan, at his own office on the idyllic Los Alamos campus in the New Mexico mountains, where nuclear weapons work is financed by a federal payment exceeding $2 billion a year. She recommended that a sensitive facility conducting plutonium operations — inside a building known as PF-4 — be shut down, immediately, while the safety deficiencies were fixed.

McMillan, a nuclear physicist and weapons designer with government-funded compensation exceeding a million dollars a year, responded that he had believed the problems could be solved while that lab kept operating. He was “reluctant” to shut it down, Miller recalled. But as the call proceeded, he became open to her view that the risks were too high, she added. So on McMillan’s order, the facility was shut within a day, with little public notice.

In the secrecy-shrouded world of America’s nuclear weapons work, that decision had far-reaching consequences. Shuttering a key part of PF-4 abruptly halted two types of sensitive work done nowhere else in the United States, for roughly the next four years: The invasive sampling and analysis of selected aging nuclear weapons cores to ensure that intact models could all still function as intended; and the production of new cores that could be fit into more modern nuclear weapons or replace those pulled apart in testing.

The shutdown was not expected to last nearly so long, but Los Alamos’s managers have struggled for years to meet basic safety standards and had difficulty getting the lab back to full operations. The exact cost to taxpayers is unclear, but an internal Los Alamos report estimated in 2013 that idling the facility where such work is conducted costs more than a million dollars a day in lost productivity alone.

And these safety challenges aren’t confined to Los Alamos. The Center’s probe revealed worker safety risks, previously unpublicized accidents, and dangerously lax management practices at other nuclear weapons-related facilities. The investigation further found that penalties for these practices were relatively light, and that many of the firms that run these facilities were awarded tens of millions of dollars in profits in the same years that major safety lapses occurred. Some were awarded new contracts despite repeated, avoidable accidents, including some that exposed workers to radiation.

But the consequences also extend to America’s overall national security. The years-long halt in the invasive testing of plutonium cores, or “pits” as they are also known, means that between 2013 and this year, the United States has not been able to examine in detail how well or poorly the cores of the most critical warheads in its arsenal have been aging. Among them: warheads carried by America’s nuclear submarines and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, plus an older type of warhead still stockpiled for use by strategic bombers.

The government has generally not publicized how disruptive the hiatus at Los Alamos has been, although telltale data appear in obscure reports by the National Nuclear Security Administration. They reveal that nuclear weapons scientists had planned to check 29 plutonium cores with invasive testing at Los Alamos over the past four years. But that schedule had to be scrapped, and it was not until the second half of 2016 that the lab scheduled two such tests. One failed and the other was cancelled due to poor safety preparations.

Ordinarily, new warhead pits are produced steadily by technicians at PF-4 for installation in modernized weapons, to replace some of those pits withdrawn for testing, and to keep workers there trained and agile. But Los Alamos has not fabricated any new plutonium cores for existing or modernized warheads since 2011. And restarting that work safely is not the only challenge: Last July, an internal NNSA report said this core fabrication work will likely cost the government at least an extra $100 million over the next four years beyond the funds already set aside for such work, due to rising equipment costs.

“The laboratory shut down an important facility doing important work,” said James McConnell, the NNSA’s associate administrator for safety, infrastructure, and operations, in a recent interview at the agency’s Washington headquarters. “What we didn’t have was the quality program that we want.”

Key lab remains only partly active

Los Alamos and the NNSA have publicly boasted that PF-4 has recently been fully restarted, but in truth, it’s only accomplished exercises and dry runs of its most important missions.

The little-known hiatus has forced the directors of the three principal U.S. weapons laboratories to rely on other types of reliability tests, mostly conducted at other U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, when they promised in annual reports to the President and the Congress that the country’s warheads will still explode in the manner intended by their designers. The highly classified reports, known as ROSAs, for Report on Stockpile Assessment, did not highlight the pit testing interruption, according to two people who have read them.

Through Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark, McMillan declined CPI’s request to be interviewed, and the laboratory did not respond to questions about his conversation with Miller, the lab’s safety record, or the consequences of the shutdown. But that interruption of Los Alamos’s pit production and testing — the latter of which is meant to substitute in part for full-scale explosive nuclear testing — has made some of those responsible for managing the nuclear stockpile uncomfortable……..

New troubles last year

In 2016, for the third straight year, the Energy Department and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board each listed criticality safety at Los Alamos as one of the most pressing problems facing the nuclear weapons program, in their annual reports to Congress. Even now, “required improvements to the Criticality Safety program are moving at an unacceptably slow pace,” the most recent NNSA performance evaluation of Los Alamos, released in Nov. 2016, said.

Hazardous operations at PF-4 slowly started to resume during 2016, but problems continued. During a drill simulating a criticality accident on June, 15, 2016, some alarms at PF-4 didn’t work, and workers showed “inattentiveness” to a colleague who pretended to be wounded, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board summary of the exercise; as a result, they were judged to have failed portions of the test.

Then on June 21, 2016, after technicians working in a glove box spilled about 7 tablespoons of a liquid containing plutonium, workers violated safety rules by sopping up the spill with organic cheesecloth and throwing it in waste bins with other nuclear materials, according to an internal Los Alamos report.

Using cheesecloth in such cleanups has been barred by the Energy Department since 1994, because its contact with plutonium readily triggers chemical reactions and fires. The prohibition was ignored to ill effect on Aug. 11, 2003, when two workers at PF-4 inhaled plutonium after a sudden reaction between that material, organic cheesecloth, and acid. A similar chemical reaction stemming from the sloppy disposal of Los Alamos’ nuclear waste in 2014 provoked the shutdown of a deep-underground storage site in New Mexico for more than two years, a DOE accident investigation concluded. That incident cost the government more than a billion dollars in cleanup and other expenses.

Nonetheless, in 2016 the contractors that run Los Alamos — Bechtel National, Inc., AECOM, BWXT Government Group, Inc., and the University of California — received 74 percent or $10.7 million of the $14.4 million in profits available to them from the NNSA in the category that includes pit production and surveillance (all their actual expenses are separately reimbursed every year by the government).

In its November 2016 evaluation, which was informed in part by the contractors’ assessment of their own performance, the NNSA explained the payout. “The Laboratory exceeded expectations” in its progress toward being ready to fully resume activities in PF-4, the evaluation said. Spokesmen for the companies, as well as their joint consortium, declined comment.

Marvin Adams, a nuclear physicist at Texas A&M who has been a consultant to Los Alamos’s work with warhead pits, said that “If they continue on their path to get everything back up and running, I am pretty comfortable.” But he added that he would worry if a safety shutdown was again required. “Starting and stopping in this business is a huge issue,” Adams said. “You cannot fire these people and then go out on the street and hire them or replace them.”

But criticality experts remain worried.

One of those who went to see Miller, the NNSA director, in 2011 to complain about criticality safety was Jerry McKamy, a former NNSA nuclear physicist who is now a senior expert at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but made clear in a trade journal article last December that the nuclear complex’s poor handling of criticality safety has been endemic.

Citing the safety history at Los Alamos and other facilities, McKamy wrote that “DOE and its contractors have repeatedly shown they are not capable of anticipating and preventing serious criticality safety problems.” They have persistently ignored “written and credible warnings by criticality safety and management experts,” he wrote.

Klotz, the NNSA director, has tried to be upbeat. In March, he told hundreds of nuclear contractors packed into a Washington hotel ballroom for an industry gathering that PF-4 was fully back in business, having “safely resumed all plutonium activities there after a three-year pause.”

He emphasized that Los Alamos had “assembled a production development pit” and said that work on a particular modernized warhead — due for delivery to the Navy in less than two years — provided proof of “the NNSA’s ability and the ability of our M&O partners” — contractors — to deliver updated nuclear weapons “on time and on budget.”

But a subsequent analysis by the Government Accountability Office clashed with Klotz’s description. In an April report on costs associated with the NNSA’s ongoing nuclear weapon modernization campaign, the GAO disclosed the existence of an internal NNSA report forecasting that PF-4 will be unable to meet a congressional demand for production of 30 new pits per year by 2026, as part of a 30-year, $1 trillion nuclear weapons update. It said the pit production schedule is likely to slip two to three years.

The “production development pit” Klotz referenced during his March 1 speech and publicized in photos released by NNSA was actually made during a practice run, and so it could not be used in the arsenal, according to current and former government officials with access to classified information about the work.

After Carter donned a protective moon-suit to witness the event, he issued a statement saying that “a strong plutonium science and manufacturing capability is essential to the U.S. nuclear deterrent and cannot be underestimated.” But he declined through a spokesman to say exactly what he was told by the lab during his visit about the status of the production effort.

Moreover, late last year, when Los Alamos conducted its first scheduled destructive test of a plutonium pit since the shutdown of PF-4 more than three years ago, it did not produce the needed results, according to NNSA’s annual evaluation of Los Alamos’ performance last year. The test involved the core of a refurbished warhead scheduled to be delivered to the Navy by the end of 2019 for use atop the Trident missiles carried by U.S. submarines.

It “resulted in a ‘no test’ and loss of the test asset [pit] as a result of test set up issues,” according to the NNSA report. Another destructive pit test scheduled for last year — after being delayed for at least a year — had to be abandoned outright because a nuclear safety analysis of the work wasn’t completed, the NNSA’s evaluation of the lab said.

Other plutonium work at PF-4 also has not fully resumed. At a public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, the head of NNSA’s oversight office at Los Alamos said that federal permission in particular has not been granted for renewed work with plutonium liquids, which is needed to purify plutonium taken from older warheads for reuse, normally a routine practice.

Safety official McConnell also told the hearing that while Los Alamos is making progress, it still has been unable to resolve the safety issue that provoked its shutdown four years ago, namely an acute shortage of engineers who are trained in how to keep the plutonium from becoming “critical” and fissioning uncontrollably on its own because too much of it is concentrated in a particular space. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its managers.

McConnell also disclosed that NNSA is now quietly studying whether to keep plutonium pit operations at Los Alamos. Options being considered include upgrading the facilities there or “adding capabilities or leveraging existing capabilities elsewhere in the country, at other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used.”

Active NNSA sites that fit that description include the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Pantex plant in Texas and the Nevada National Security Site. The NNSA expects to complete its analysis by late summer.

“The lab has struggled to hire experienced engineers,” the lab’s criticality safety chief said in the presentation to colleagues at Sandia last month. “We recognize and acknowledge that we are on a multi-year journey to eliminate resource constraints and to become completely compliant with national standards.”

A separate Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report in February detailed the magnitude of the shortfall:

Los Alamos’ dangerous work, it said, demands 27 fully qualified criticality safety engineers.

The lab has 10……… http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/safety-problems-los-alamos-laboratory-delay-us-nuclear-warhead-testing-and-production

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July 1, 2017 - Posted by | investigative journalism, Reference, safety, USA, weapons and war

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