Los Alamos Gets ‘Inadequate’ Safety Rating from Energy Dept.

A Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board engineer places uranium hemi-shell training models on a moveable platform in preparation for an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Energy Department gave the laboratory a high rating for its nuclear criticality safety performance last year.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
July 16, 2014, 10:23 a.m.

The En­ergy De­part­ment has giv­en a key weapons lab an “in­ad­equate” rat­ing for its latest safety re­cord on “nuc­le­ar crit­ic­al­ity,” a meas­ure of atom­ic sta­bil­ity.

Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory re­ceived the weak­est nuc­le­ar crit­ic­al­ity safety rat­ing of all U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons labor­at­or­ies, though its per­form­ance is as­sessed to be get­ting bet­ter, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased last week cov­er­ing fisc­al 2013. Deputy En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Daniel Pone­man sub­mit­ted the as­sess­ment to the De­fense Nuc­le­ar Fa­cil­it­ies Safety Board.

Nuc­le­ar crit­ic­al­ity typ­ic­ally refers to a bal­ance of neut­rons in a re­act­or, with “sub­crit­ic­al­ity” sug­gest­ing un­der­pro­duc­tion and “su­per­crit­ic­al­ity” sug­gest­ing over­pro­duc­tion. Nuc­le­ar crit­ic­al­ity safety is the prac­tice of pre­vent­ing atom­ic chain re­ac­tions from tak­ing place in fis­sile ma­ter­i­als out­side of re­act­ors.

The Los Alam­os fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico had 38 nuc­le­ar crit­ic­al­ity safety in­frac­tions in the last fisc­al year and re­ceived an over­all per­form­ance rat­ing of “does not meet ex­pect­a­tions.”

“Op­er­a­tions in the main plutoni­um fa­cil­ity at LANL were paused in June 2013,” the 75-page an­nu­al re­port states. “Re­sump­tion from the pause will oc­cur on an op­er­a­tion-by-op­er­a­tion basis once the as­so­ci­ated pro­ced­ures are val­id­ated from a con­duct of op­er­a­tions per­spect­ive, crit­ic­al­ity con­trols are veri­fied to be ad­equate and flowed in­to pro­ced­ures, and op­er­at­ors trained.”

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion “in gen­er­al” has had “dif­fi­culty hir­ing and re­tain­ing qual­i­fied crit­ic­al­ity safety staff,” with Los Alam­os and the Y-12 Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Site ex­per­i­en­cing more dif­fi­culties in that arena than oth­er weapon sites, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The Y-12 com­plex, loc­ated in Ten­ness­ee, re­ceived an “ad­equate” per­form­ance rat­ing, even though it had 71 in­frac­tions.

Lawrence Liv­er­more Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory in Cali­for­nia had the highest rat­ing of any of the sites. The Cali­for­nia com­plex’s over­all safety per­form­ance was judged “ex­cel­lent,” with only one crit­ic­al­ity safety in­frac­tion oc­cur­ring in the last fisc­al year.

The Nevada Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Site‘s over­all per­form­ance was de­scribed as “ad­equate, but does not fully meet re­quire­ments,” though it re­cor­ded just one minor in­frac­tion. San­dia Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory in New Mex­ico was giv­en a safety rat­ing of “ad­equate,” with no in­frac­tions re­por­ted since fisc­al 2009. Mean­time, the Pan­tex Plant in Texas also was giv­en an “ad­equate” safety grade, with no in­frac­tions re­por­ted in more than 20 years.

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