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LANL plutonium accident probed

A senior technician holds a disk of pure plutonium inside a glove box at Los Alamos National Laboratory Technical Area 55. (Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Triad National Security, operator of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has initiated an investigation after 15 workers at the lab were potentially exposed to plutonium-238, a powerful alpha emitter primarily used as a heat source for power generators.

The incident took place June 8 and involved a breach in a glove box glove, according to LANL.

Lab employees use glove boxes – sealed containers with a pair of gloves built in on two sides that allow workers to manipulate objects inside the box without breaking containment – when handling or processing nuclear material.

“Laboratory employees responded promptly and appropriately, and cleared the room in a safe manner,” the lab said in a statement. “The area inside the Plutonium Facility where this occurred has been secured, pending a review of the events. There is no risk to public health and safety.”

LANL said the 15 employees were being evaluated for potential exposure. It’s unclear when the review will conclude.

Plutonium-238 is not used for nuclear weapons, nor would it work well as fuel for a nuclear reactor, according to NASA, which uses the radioactive isotope to provide electricity and heat during space missions. It is produced at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and shipped to LANL, where it is turned into heat-source pellets. The pellets are then shipped to Idaho National Laboratory “to be placed into safe, long-term storage awaiting fueling of future radioisotope power systems there,” according to NASA.

A memo from inspectors with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board dated June 12 says air monitors sounded an alert after a lab employee weighing and packaging plutonium-238 oxide powder pulled his hands out of glove box gloves.

“The worker received significant contamination on his protective clothing, hair, clothing, and skin, as well as positive nasal swabs indicating a potential intake. Radiation protection personnel successfully decontaminated the individual, and he was provided chelation therapy. The room experienced significant airborne radioactivity and was contaminated,” the memo says.

The memo says the 14 other workers were placed on bioassay, an method used to measure the potency of a substances on living cells or tissues.

Triad National Security, the nonprofit consortium that has operated the lab since November 2018, conducted a fact-finding inquiry to determine the next course of action.

“Given the significance of the event, they chartered a team to perform a comprehensive investigation,” the memo says.

Watchdog groups have long been critical of LANL’s safety record, missed deadlines and cost overruns.

State officials also have voiced concerns about the federal government’s ability to clean up existing contamination from decades of bomb making and nuclear research while generating new waste.

“LANL has never had a terribly strong safety culture,” Greg Mello, of Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, said in an email to the Journal. “LANL identifies as a laboratory, not a high-hazard industrial facility, which would require more stringent management. The production of plutonium heat sources has proven itself to be singularly unforgiving of the smallest oversights in maintenance, planning, and operations.”

In February, LANL received an overall “good” annual evaluation from federal managers based on its performance during fiscal year 2019, Triad’s first year operating the lab.

But the lab received only a “satisfactory” rating for reduction of nuclear security threats, and operations and infrastructure. Of the six sites evaluated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, LANL was the only one to get a rating as low as satisfactory, and it got two of them.

This is not the first time LANL workers have been exposed to plutonium-238 at the Plutonium Facility. In 2003, two workers were exposed while working in a storage room. An accident investigation determined the cause was the release of airborne contamination from a stored package that contained cellulose material and plutonium-238 residue.

In 2018, a lab worker was fired for shipping weapons-grade plutonium by air instead of by ground as required by federal regulations.

Last year, operations staff at the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building found a leak in the building’s radioactive liquid waste system.

In 2014, dozens of drums of radioactive waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, where waste processed at Los Alamos and other sites around the country is sent for underground disposal, were found to have been breached by a chemical reaction. It was later determined that the chemical reaction was due to adding organic cat litter to the drums as an absorbent. The drums were packed and sealed at LANL.

“NNSA and Triad need to rethink what they are trying to do. LANL’s old plutonium facility was built for R&D, not production,” Mello said.

The recent incident occurred just as LANL is preparing to ramp up production of plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons. The work is expected to bring jobs and billions of federal dollars to update buildings or construct new facilities.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.