SANTA FE – There’s been a “criticality safety event” at Los Alamos National Laboratory during plutonium work that resulted in a pause in operations and the “disqualifying” of workers.
LANL in 2016 was the only one of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities to receive a failing “red” safety rating in the area of “criticality,” or prevention of nuclear chain reactions that could lead to radiation releases.
A report by the Los Alamos staff of an independent federal oversight board says that on Aug. 18, a crew that had cast a “shell,” part of the construction of plutonium pits that are the triggers for nuclear weapons, then moved the shell “into a location that already contained plutonium metal,” exceeding plutonium limits. The violation was discovered three days later when the shell was moved again.
“Following discovery, the crew conducted two additional nuclear material movements that they felt were necessary for product quality and security, rather than declare a potential process deviation as required by procedure and training,” says the report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
When too much plutonium is put in close quarters, a reaction can take place and lead to bursts of radiation that can be deadly. A critical report earlier this year by the Center for Public Integrity highlighted at a 2011 incident at LANL where eight plutonium rods were placed side-by-side for a celebratory photograph, which the report says was described internally at lab “as the most dangerous nuclear-related incident at that facility in years.”
No comment was available Friday from the lab or the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Field Office.