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LANL nuclear safety panned in U.S. report

SANTA FE – A new government report gives poor marks to Los Alamos National Laboratory on its state of nuclear safety, saying the lab continues to have problems “fully implementing a number of critical nuclear safety management requirements.”

Until the lab does better, there is only “limited assurance that safety risks associated with nuclear facility operations are effectively mitigated for the safety of workers, the public, and the environment,” says a safety audit by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General.

The audit, dated July 16 and based on reviews in February, also said delays in bringing two major LANL operations up to safety standards – including its plutonium facility, which produces the triggers or “pits” for nuclear weapons – is impairing the National Nuclear Security Administration’s mission. That mission includes maintaining the reliability of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The report repeatedly dings LANL for delays in updating safety procedures and documents, resolving significant safety deficiencies and not completing corrective actions called for in prior audits, sometimes over several years. At the plutonium facility, known as PF-4, the problems involved “noncompliance with established criticality safety controls to prevent fissile materials, such as plutonium, from causing a nuclear chain reaction.”

The plutonium facility was closed in June 2013 after an uptick in criticality safety infractions, but about two-thirds of operations were resumed in the summer of 2014. The new report says officials are now shooting for a full restart by the end of the federal 2016 fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2016. Safety revisions have been ongoing for six years, the report says.

At LANL’s Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility, processing tritium for the stockpile stewardship program was suspended in 2011 and is now expected to fully resume at the end of this year. Revisions for the WETF’s “safety basis” has been going on for seven years, according to the audit. One continuing problem is a system to detect elevated oxygen levels in tritium processing to prevent combustion.

The report notes that from fiscal years 2010 through 2013, expenditures for safety analysis and controls on the tritium facility were $17 million and $9.9 million for PF-4. Despite the spending, the report states, LANL had not “resolved significant and long-standing nuclear safety deficiencies” for restart of the two facilities whose activities “are vital to LANL’s national security mission.”

Part of the problem, the audit says, is that “LANL lacked sufficient qualified staff to resolve certain safety issues.”

A senior lab official said Tuesday that significant progress has been made toward resuming activities in PF-4 with the help of NNSA, and that many more activities there are in the normal resumption process. He said the lab continues to work on resuming the remaining activities as quickly and safely as possible and that with the help of NNSA headquarters and Los Alamos Field Office criticality safety experts, LANL is well on its way to completing all resumption activities.

The report does give LANL credit for some safety improvements, including in dealing with “seismic risks” from an earthquake with structural upgrades and other moves, and for establishing a Safety Basis Quality Review Board.

Frank Klotz, the DOE’s undersecretary for nuclear security and NNSA administrator, says in a June response included with the audit that the private contractor that runs the lab – Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium including Bechtel Corp. and the University of California – has “made management changes in senior and mid-level positions to affect a culture change that is needed to address systemic weaknesses.”