Projects slowed for safety reviews
By Wendy Brown | The New Mexican
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials halted some plutonium operations in late September because of concerns about nuclear safety at limited storage areas at Technical Area 55.
The lab stopped some operations Sept. 21 and resumed some of them Sept. 27, said Kevin Roark, spokesman for the lab. As lab officials become more confident about safety, they are increasing the number of operations, he said, but they are not yet back to regular levels.
Roark said the lab hopes to resume regular operations as soon as possible, but he did not know when that would take place.
There was no accident or danger of an accident, Roark said, but lab officials took the action as a preventative and precautionary measure. "This is the lab's climate of safety," he said. "We want to take the most conservative approach to safety."
The safety issue concerns whether there is adequate radiation shielding to prevent a criticality event, Roark said. Criticality occurs when there is too much nuclear material in a given space and a chain reaction takes place. Nuclear weapons reach an uncontrolled criticality when they explode, but criticality can be controlled, and that is what happens in nuclear power plants.
"You just don't want it to have it happen by accident," Roark said. "That's what's really bad."
But the lab's concerns about criticality were not based on everyday safety situations, Roark said.
Lab officials want to be sure that a problem will not happen if several unlikely events take place at the same time, Roark said. The likelihood that a "perfect storm" of problems would happen is extremely remote, he said, but lab officials prepare for it anyway.
The study of criticality safety started at the lab, and the last criticality accident to take place at the lab was on New Year's Eve of 1958, Roark said. One person died.
"We are not ever going to have another criticality accident here if we can help it," Roark said.
Contact Wendy Brown at 986-3072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This story was also covered by Jim Williams of KUNM. The audio is available here.]