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Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says that Los Alamos National Laboratory still has long-standing safety problems

Nuclear board sees no quick fix for LANL safety issues, By Rebecca Moss |, Jan 17, 2019 

      A national nuclear safety board says long-standing problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory persist several years after work was halted at its plutonium facility and are unlikely to be resolved in less than five years.

Under its former management contractor, the lab in 2017 issued an improvement plan, saying it had created “a significant culture change” at the plutonium facility. But in a report released in late November, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said it disagreed with that assessment, adding managers still have hurdles to overcome.

The board based its conclusions on an August review of incidents in which workers exceeded safety limits for the amount and type of nuclear material that can be placed in a given location, as well as on other rules meant to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction. They said improvements had been slow, staffing levels were inadequate and problems have continued to recur for the same issues.

There also have been several incidents of worker contamination, separate board reports show.

The board is an independent panel that advises the president and Energy Secretary Rick Perry on safety issues at many of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities.

The lab’s safety program, intended to prevent a runaway chain reaction of nuclear materials, remains short-staffed and has not met many industry standards, the board said in the review, which was sent to Perry in late November.

The board’s report said Los Alamos, which came under a new management contractor in November, has made some improvements — including better labeling of fissile material and some improvements related to safety evaluations — but still failed to fix many recurring problems and likely won’t resolve them in less than five years, in part because of staffing shortages.

Until then, the board wrote, the lab “will continue to operate with elevated risk.”

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory, declined to comment on the safety board report and referred questions to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In written comments related to the report, board member Joyce Connery wrote, “Given that there is a new prime contractor operating LANL as well as a significant increase in mission scope in the near future, I believe it is important to convey the challenges that remain within the Nuclear Criticality Safety Program.”

In particular, the board found repeated issues at the plutonium facility, known as PF-4, which handles some of Los Alamos’ most high-risk work and is tasked with increasing production of plutonium pits, the grapefruit-sized plutonium metal cores used to trigger nuclear weapons.

The government has outlined plans for Los Alamos to produce dozens of pits every year by 2030, a nuclear weapons modernization mission that has been supported by New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

But the lab so far has developed only five test pits. Production has been plagued by safety concerns, infrastructure problems, work shutdowns and staffing problems, according to letters and reports written by the board and the Department of Energy dating back more than five years.

Increasing plutonium work at Los Alamos could further strain already tenuous conditions at the lab, the safety board said in its report.

Efforts to improve safety procedures are progressing slowly, the board said, in part because the lab did not create clear goals to resolve the problems.

As of October, the board said, the lab had failed to meet standards for more than half of about 400 nuclear safety program measures, and only 11 out of 25 staffers needed for the program were considered fully qualified.

There also are “significant challenges in hiring, qualifying, and retaining sufficient personnel to accomplish … safe operations,” the board said.

In June 2013, federal regulators paused all work at the lab’s plutonium facility for more than a year to address nuclear safety problems.

Since 2017, when the lab reported it had made significant improvements at PF-4, there have been numerous reported safety issues.

In the last two months, the board reported, a four-person crew was contaminated with plutonium-238 at the plutonium facility and a room had to be decontaminated. Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said employees were wearing protective equipment at the time of the event and “all safety systems worked as designed.”

Water also pooled and leaked into a basement in the facility in late November. The board wrote that it was similar to an incident nine months prior, when water had leaked and collected in a basement room that held nuclear waste drums.

Roark, however, said the November incident did not occur where nuclear material is processed, and managers are working to replace the type of faucet that caused the leak with more modern equipment.

January 19, 2019 - Posted by | safety, USA


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