Oct 25, 2007

Safety board makes safety complaints formal


A new disagreement has arisen about safety systems at Los Alamos National Laboratory, this one focused on the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility (CMR).

In a letter Tuesday to the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the chairman of a federal safety board wrote, "The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board believes that continued operation of the CMR facility in its current condition poses significant risks to workers and the public."

The warning, calling for a response within 60 days, follows a letter last week that expressed the board's increasing concern about "the overall lack of progress with respect to safety improvements at LANL."

While referencing some positive steps, Chairman A. J Eggenberger added, "However, none of these initiatives are mature, and continued federal and contractor management attention and support are needed to ensure their success."

The Oct. 16 letter was based on results of a DNFSB review of safety systems at the Plutonium Facility, Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility.

The exact nature of the problems cannot be revealed for security reasons, but they are important, said Don Ami, a spokesman for the NNSA in Los Alamos.

The lab has a plan to address the problems and is in the process of hiring more people to put the plan in action, said Donald L. Winchell Jr., who heads the NNSA's Los Alamos site office.

"We will continue to work with the laboratory to ensure speedy action on these important safety initiatives," Winchell said.

The board raised many of the concerns at a public meeting in March 2006, Eggenberger said in the letter.

The report noted two safety system deficiencies in the plutonium facility, one concerning an air system and another a water bath.

The safety board site representative reported in September that some plutonium activities were stopped at the Plutonium Facility pending review of criticality safety. These include concerns that a worst-case scenario might cause an accident in the plutonium storage vaults.

In expressing concerns about the CMR facility, the board noted that LANL had decided to abandon a complete facility upgrade of the building in favor of a brand new replacement facility, which was originally scheduled to be completed in 2010.

Now, the board notes, funding for the replacement "has experienced significant delays, is now nominally projected for completion in 2016 and faces continued susceptibility to year-to-year budgetary uncertainty."

Timely and adequate repairs to the present facility appear to be unlikely and the completion of the replacement uncertain, the safety board concluded, which creates a bind.

"This timetable leaves little time for NNSA to complete any necessary safety system upgrades or identify alternative strategies for meeting national security priorities," Eggenberger wrote in his most recent letter.

No comments: