More plutonium approved for lab facility

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A federal agency says there will be no significant environmental impact from a 10-fold increase in the allowable amount of plutonium that can be handled at the Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (SOURCE: LANL)

SANTA FE – The federal government has found that a 10-fold increase in the amount of “at risk” radioactive material at one of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s buildings will have no significant environmental impact on or around the lab campus.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous wing of the U.S. Department of Energy, formalized the findings of its environmental assessment late last month.

The action clears the way for operational changes at LANL’s Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, known as RLUOB or the Rad Lab.

The building’s allowable radioactive “material-at-risk” inventory will go from the 38.6 grams of “plutonium equivalent material” to 400 grams. The change would recategorize the facility from a “radiological facility” to a “hazard category 3 nuclear facility.”

NNSA rejected calls from groups and individuals who opposed the change for safety reasons during a public comment period.

Opponents said the agency should undertake development of a much broader environmental impact statement that would include the issue of expanded production at Los Alamos of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons called “pits.”

But NNSA insisted in its findings that the change at RLOUB is not “directly” tied to plans to ramp up pit-making at LANL. The building’s plutonium capacity is a separate matter, NNSA said.

“NNSA acknowledges that there is opposition to the nuclear weapons mission,” it said.

Greg Mello, of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, said NNSA is “stonewalling.”

“NNSA’s ideas about national security apparently do not include protecting the environment, obviously a trend across the whole of this (presidential) administration,” he said in a statement.

“NNSA has abandoned true National Environmental Policy Act compliance in favor of a post-hoc ‘CYA’ substitute. The Pentagon is calling most of the shots now, and proper environmental review is a low priority.”

NNSA says in documentation for its July 25 “finding of no significant impact” that expanded capabilities at RLOUB “are required to ensure NNSA’s ability to safely maintain and manage the Nation’s nuclear stockpile.”

The change is an “opportunity for NNSA to improve efficiency and reduce costs without adding risk to the public, facility workers, or the environment,” it added.

Performing more operations at RLUOB and fewer in the lab’s much older major plutonium facility, known as PF-4, “entails minor impacts and low risks, and does not constitute a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment …,” NNSA said

NNSA acknowledged that over the past several years, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent oversight agency, has expressed safety concerns “similar to those raised by commenters (during the public comment period) related to a range of safety issues associated with plutonium operations at LANL.”

“These concerns which include seismic concerns at PF-4, criticality concerns at PF-4, safety management and safety culture, have been addressed in ongoing actions at LANL,” NNSA said. “Criticality” refers to potential runaway nuclear reactions. There hasn’t been a criticality event at LANL since the 1950s, but the lab has been cited recently for safety issues in this area.

“As a part of the Integrated Safety Management systems at LANL, the safety lessons learned from concerns at PF-4 are applied to RLUOB, LANL and the rest of the DOE complex,” NNSA said.

“Thus, NNSA has full confidence that RLUOB can continue to be operated safely and that moving additional … activities to RLUOB would contribute to overall safety at LANL.”

The lab has been penalized and cited in recent years for various safety lapses, including an improperly packaged radioactive waste drum that leaked and shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad with contamination, and sending plutonium across the country via a commercial air shipping service.

NNSA is under orders from Congress to ramp up production of plutonium pits to 30 annually over the next several years and to 80 pits a year by about 2030, part of a huge and costly modernization of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Under NNSA’s plan, pit production would be divided between LANL and NNSA’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, but legal and political obstacles might stop use of the South Carolina site. No new pits have been made in the U.S. since 2011, when LANL completed a small set.

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