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LANL paused some plutonium work for safety review

SANTA FE – A division of Los Alamos National Laboratory paused plutonium work in March after workers improperly placed a plutonium “pit” — the core of a nuclear weapon — in a glove box not authorized for that purpose and also placed fissile material samples into a pit hemishell, in two separate incidents.

The shutdown at the Pit Technologies Division in the lab’s plutonium facility was in response to the recent “process deviations” and provided time for managers to evaluate various safety issues, according to a report posted last week by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent federal agency that provides oversight at the nation’s weapons labs.

While there has not been a criticality accident — where an uncontrolled nuclear reaction takes place — at LANL since the 1950s, the lab has faced criticism over criticality safety issues in recent years. 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 lab spokesman provided a statement saying, “The Laboratory’s criticality safety program continues to improve as evidenced by an increase in workers who are self-reporting process deviations and by a reduced rate of such deviation occurrences.

“Given the critically safety margins now in place, we have greatly reduced our radiological risks. The two-day safety review is aimed at getting workers together to discuss best practices and safety issues. These process deviations and safety days have not slowed down our pit operations in any meaningful way, and — to the contrary — are actually helping us to further refine the safety and efficiency of our processes and procedures.”

The safety board report, posted Friday but dated March 30, said seven operation were still restricted but would resume once issues are resolved. “Additionally, management is developing a remediation process for workers involved in last week’s inappropriate pit movement,” the report states.

LANL in 2016 was the only one of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities to receive a failing “red” safety rating for criticality.