Oct 27, 2009

Defense Safety Board Strongly Criticizes Seismic Safety at Los Alamos Plutonium Facility

For immediate release 10/27/09
Contact: Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, 505-265-1200 www.lasg.org

In an unusually strong recommendation (pdf), the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has strongly criticized the state of seismic safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) main plutonium facility, Building PF-4 in Technical Area (TA)-55.

This is only the second official recommendation on any subject from the Board this year.

Due to “the severity of the problems” at PF-4, the Board requires quarterly responses over the next 12 months and suggests that if necessary Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu act under Atomic Energy Act to promptly implement short- as well as long-term remedies.

The Board finds that the mitigated (not: unmitigated) consequences off site of a seismic event and subsequent fire at PF-4 are more than 100 times the applicable DOE evaluation guideline for offsite whole-body radiation, which is 25 rem over a period of a few hours. These are NNSA modeling results.

Like most official Board communications, this one – at just 2½ pages – is a model of concision and clarity. I will not attempt to summarize its main points here but rather urge all interested parties to read it carefully.

An acute dose of the predicted magnitude (2,500 rem) would be fatal within a few days at most.

Predicted doses would be less at downwind population centers such as the village of White Rock, the town of Los Alamos, and elsewhere. Significant plutonium deposition, creating longer-term risks and incurring cleanup costs, may extend much farther downwind under some conditions.

The postulated accident would create higher doses than this to any exposed individuals on the LANL site who were exposed downwind. Prompt evacuation of these areas would be essential. Downwind LANL facilities would be contaminated and require extensive cleanup. This might not be economical, especially if there were also structural or other earthquake damage, which is likely. LANL, in other words, could be shut down for a long time and might not be worth rebuilding.

The inadequacy of the safety situation at PF-4 in general, and its seismic safety in particular, have long been a concern of this organization and we have brought up this issue in meetings with the Board in Washington, DC and in Los Alamos on multiple occasions in the past three years.

As the Board’s Recommendation notes, the present situation has been a long time in development.

The Board’s Recommendation does not mention that PF-4, along with other LANL nuclear facilities, has been operating under a so-called “Justification for Continued Operation” (JCO), which is a memorandum NNSA writes to itself explaining why it does not need for follow federal nuclear safety regulations – in LANL’s case seismic safety regulations. NNSA recently granted itself an extension to its JCO.

The resolution of seismic safety issues at PF-4 is almost completely unrelated to the planned Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility. There is no known opposition to the continued safe operation of PF-4 as a plutonium facility under all stockpile management scenarios. A construction project called the “TA-55 Reinvestment Project” (NNSA Project 08-D-804) is a catch-all for the larger planned capital renewal projects at PF-4.

The Manager of the Los Alamos Site Office (LASO), Donald Winchell, who has with his staff been responsible for development and maintenance of the seismic safety response at PF-4, said in August that the Board “may have outlived its usefulness to the country.”
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board “may have outlived its usefulness to the country,” the National Nuclear Security Administration’s top official at Los Alamos National Laboratory told NW&M Monitor earlier this month. Though NNSA Los Alamos Site Office Manager Donald Winchell later added that he does believe the Board will continue to play an important role in regulating [sic – DNFSB advises, not regulates] the NNSA, his comments illustrate the growing sense at NNSA and the Department of Energy as a whole that the Board has pushed the agency toward expensive changes and a “risk averse” culture—a fact that has led Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to take a hard look at streamlining oversight and re-evaluating DOE’s relationship to the Board. “What’s their role? They have no responsibility in this game other than to sit back and tell us what we’re doing wrong,” he said. (Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, 8/31/09)
Study Group Director Mello: “None of the serious problems that have coalesced into yesterday’s strong recommendation are new. The Board has been, it seems to me, the soul of patience in regard to PF-4. In our judgment the Board has never, and is not in this case, pushing NNSA toward unnecessary expenses and an unnecessarily “risk-averse” culture. The Board would like LANL to meet the same standards that are required in the civilian nuclear power industry, standards which are usually met at other DOE sites.

“Operations at LANL’s plutonium facility do not now, and may have never, met federal standards. For many years this facility’s operations have been supported by a scrim of variances and allowances, not actual compliance with DOE’s regulations.

“The Board is rejecting what might be called the ‘heroic’ mode of operation which characterized the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War. Make no mistake: that mode is still the normative condition assumed by many Cold War managers. Many nuclear hawks want it back.

“Congress created the Safety Board to make sure that doesn’t happen. Thousands of people were sickened fighting the Cold War at these facilities and many workers died, as did an unknown large number of down-winders. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on cleanup. A seismic-generated fire at TA-55 – by no means the only possible very bad unplanned event at LANL, as DOE well knows – could have permanent consequences for thousands of people, especially in Los Alamos County but also in Santa Fe County. The Board is acting with the highest professionalism to fulfill its legal mandate to prevent such a catastrophe.”

“Whether NNSA wants to or not, the agency needs to dip into current operating funds, which are more than ample, to fix up PF-4. As I believe most if not all parties now realize, there is no need for active stockpile pit production, so the time is certainly ripe.”

[Download DNFSB Recommendation 2009-2 here.]

34 comments:

MIKEY said...

Yes!

We're now ready to go into full pit production operations. Bechtel doesn't need any stinking seismic safeguards.

Bonus Time!

Anonymous said...

"...the applicable DOE evaluation guideline for offsite whole-body radiation, which is 25 rem over a period of a few hours"

Cool your jets, Greg, that just can't be right. DOE only allows its own workers to take a whole body dose of 5 rem in a year. So where does "25 rem over a period of a few hours" come from? Citation please? It's not in the current DNFSB report.

Greg Mello said...

I sympathize; 25 rem seems too large. But:

"As outlined in DOE’s requirements, should the unmitigated off-site dose from an accident challenge DOE’s evaluation guideline of 25 rem total effective dose equivalent, those systems relied upon to prevent or mitigate the release are to be classified as safety-class."

That from p. 8 of "CONFINEMENT OF RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS AT DEFENSE NUCLEAR FACILITIES," DNFSB Technical Report, at http://www.hss.doe.gov/deprep/2004/fb04d07b.pdf.

Try DOE Order DOE G 420.1-1,
Approved: 3-28-00, here: http://www.directives.doe.gov/pdfs/doe/doetext/neword/420/g4201-1.html. There might be a more recent version, but this one explains:

The evaluation guideline has been set at 25 rem total effective dose equivalent. The dose estimates
compared to it are those which would be received by a hypothetical maximally-exposed individual at the site boundary from an unmitigated accidental release of radionuclides during a finite period,nominally 2 hours, but no longer than 8 hours. The time limitation is solely for the purpose of limiting the calculation to time periods for which a significant release rate might be expected and to provide a stable basis for the calculation. The 25 rem level was chosen to be representative of a potential release that could impact the offsite public and warrant special consideration of preventative and mitigative measures."

Best,

Greg M

Doug Roberts said...

2:46,

I believe you are confusing DOE's guidelines for DOE rad workers total allowable annual exposure, versus DOE's guidelines for "allowable" off site dosage in the event of an accident.

--Doug

Anonymous said...

Not confusing them, Doug, just comparing them for context. There is a bit of a problem with Greg's statement: "An acute dose of the predicted magnitude (2,500 rem) would be fatal within a few days at most."

Well, yes, it would. But as Greg makes clear in his followup comment: "The evaluation guideline has been set at 25 rem total effective dose equivalent."

Total effective dose equivalent is not "acute dose" - it is acute dose plus body burden dose. That's not to make light of this rather gruesome modeling result (though it is, like Camelot, "only a model").

It's simply hard for me to envision a TA-55 seismic-dispersion scenario where an offsite person could end up receiving an external dose of 2500 rem from plutonium within a couple of hours. Spent fuel has that kind of shine - the Chernobyl firefighters received doses on the order of 1000 rem, for example.

But plutonium metal just doesn't emit like that. So the 2500 rem models must either assume: a) a critical assembly is somehow formed as a result of the earthquake/fire scenario (in which case I'd expect the DNFSB to mention criticality concerns), or b) the exposed person receives a body burden dose that would cumulatively reach 2500 rem over the course of their lifetime.

Steve H said...

This is another wake up call, like the Cerro Grande Fire. You only have one way in and one way out (realistically - imagine a bunch of people trying to get out through the Jemez in a panic). If you don't get another road through Buckman, you are sitting ducks as smoke etc. will probably sweep down from the Y and envelop White Rock without a chance to get out as a low pressure center moves across Colorado. NMDOT said it's the Fed's problem to get a road through there. Surely there is some land in the mountains the Indians would trade a little patch of right of way needed to economically build that road - the bigger problem is undoubtedly the merchants who don't want Los Alamos money to bypass Pojoaque and Santa Fe and their lobbying efforts.

Wake up people. It's only a matter of time. Will you have a way out or not?

Greg Mello said...

Folks -- I did make a fairly fat error. 2:46/8:04 was right and sets the story right. Thanks to John Fleck and 2:46/8:04 for helping clarify this.

The citations above didn't say “LIFETIME” committed effective dose equivalent, but I should have stuck that word in there.

So….you'd likely die from cancer from the extra 2,500 rems delivered in committed effective dose equivalent via the Pu inhaled from such an event, but probably not right away.

The last time I looked (a few years ago now), the BEIR folks interpreted 2,000 effective person-rems of low-level population exposure as one (1) ultimate cancer death. In other words if you got that 2,500 rem you'd be more likely than not to acquire a fatal cancer from the experience.

Maybe Frank will fix that press release for me. Just drop the offending sentence "An acute dose…"

By the way, earth-induced fire is hardly the only serious possible high-consequence event at TA-55. In a way, it’s a surrogate or metaphor in this discussion for the whole suite of possible accidents and intentional malicious events, as one itself.

Greg Mello

Anonymous said...

Seismic fix, sounds like we need to call in a construction company for advice and consultation fees. I wonder where we can find one?

Anonymous said...

If this is such a worrisome issue, i.e. a catastrophic seismic event creating a fire in PF-4, spewing Pu all over northern NM, then DOE and Congress needs to shut up or put up the $$ in order to upgrade the GB's (and other facility equipment) to be "seismically safe." Over the years, RTBF has not provided the funds to keep up with the enormous costs to upgrade the facility. Remember, TA-55 was built in the 1970's.


8:04 pm. Not that I'm defending the comments from G.M. but PF-4 contains more than metal. There is highly dispersable oxide AND I wonder how much of this total off-site 25 rem dose results from Pu-238, not Pu-239.

Anonymous said...

"An acute dose of the predicted magnitude (2,500 rem) would be fatal within a few days at most."

Is this an LD100/60 level? Or, should this be 2500 CEDE?

With or without medical intervention?

Seems like a very misleading article. Are you just trying to frighten the public into more hysteria?

Anonymous said...

8:12 pm: "Surely there is some land in the mountains the Indians would trade a little patch of right of way needed to economically build that road - the bigger problem is undoubtedly the merchants"

Read the history of the state trying to get a right-of-way through Buckman. It got to the point in the early 80's of LA Realtors thinking they had approval from the Pueblos to sell property along the "proposed" right-of-way. Then the whole thing fell through and there was egg on everyone's face. It looked for a while the drive to ABQ would be 60 minutes (limited access highway), bypassing SF altogether. It was the Indians that pulled out, citing as they always do when there isn't enough money - "sacred land."

Anonymous said...

If this is such a worrisome issue, i.e. a catastrophic seismic event creating a fire in PF-4, spewing Pu all over northern NM, then ...

Are all the Plutonium gloveboxes and systems throughout the Lab seismically certified? You know, like the ones at CMR and TA-48? What is the story on these systems? Why are they any different than those at TA-55? Surely, if they are regularly tested and deemed safe, then those at TA-55 are fine.

Also, both the CMR and TA-48 have hot cells - don't you think if the hypothetical "big one" hits northern New Mexico that those would be a bigger concern as the CMR and TA-48 facilities are over 50 years old.

Greg, you are making a mountain out of a mole hill for your own public press. You are almost worse than Kevin Roark.

Anonymous said...

Please note the following:

Lab to hold National Day of Remembrance event for nuclear weapons program workers Honoring the Past and Looking to the Future

Please join the Laboratory as it honors workers, past and present, Friday,October 30, on the first National Day of Remembrance for nuclear weapons program workers and uranium miners, millers, and haulers.

Established in May by an act of Congress, this remembrance day allows the nation to publicly recognize and honor the men and women who tirelessly served our country by building and maintaining our nuclear forces during World War II through the Cold War and continuing today, said Department of
Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman. DOE headquarters, sites, and labs across the complex will mark the day with activities focused on the theme, Honoring the Past and Looking to the Future.

The Laboratory will observe the day with a program at Fuller Lodge from 10 am to 1 pm. The commemoration features an honor guard, guest speakers,testimonials, and a short commemorative video. Scheduled speakers include Governor Bill Richardson and the Lab's Principle Associate Director for Weapons Programs Charlie McMillan. Refreshments will be served.
>
>

Steve said...

Anon said:
"Read the history of the state trying to get a right-of-way through Buckman. It got to the point in the early 80's of LA Realtors thinking they had approval from the Pueblos to sell property along the "proposed" right-of-way."

Um, first, got any references to "read"? Then, how do you know the Tribe was not unduly influenced by those merchants not only along the route but in Espanola and Los Alamos itself? How much was offered? It's the Fed's responsibility to protect America's brain trust. Los Alamos citixens need to be vocal about this - not only for their protection, but to increase the viability of the Rio Grande Corridor which is now split up by a circuitous toute to civilization. It is three times further from the Santa Fe airport to Pajarito Acres by road than by the crow. Los Alamos needs to be better integrated into the economic region.

Anonymous said...

If you're addressing prompt fatalities:

LD100/60 700-1200 RAD
LD50/60 300-500 RAD
LD10/60 100-200 RAD


Mettler & Moseley, 1985 Medical Effects of Ionizing Radiation

Anonymous said...

"Surely there is some land in the mountains the Indians would trade a little patch of right of way needed to economically build that road"

Ha ha ha!! That's a good one! Lived here long?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of this total off-site 25 rem dose results from Pu-238, not Pu-239.

10/27/09 8:32 PM

Actually, most of it. This was studied exhaustively right after 9/11.

SVDecomposer said...

The New York Times has picked up this story, (click here)

Study finds quake risk at Los Alamos

Seismic activity at the nuclear lab could result in deadly amounts of airborne plutonium, federal experts say.

By Ralph Vartabedian, October 28, 2009

A big earthquake and resultant fire could trigger potentially deadly releases of radioactive materials from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico due to "major deficiencies" in the nuclear weapons lab's safety planning, federal safety experts warned Tuesday.
....

Anonymous said...

Does anybody really give a damn about what Mello has to say?

Anonymous said...

12:01,

Yes.

Does anyone care what Kevin Roark has to say?

No.

Anonymous said...

Ok, you’ve admitted your error.

But to use a 50 year CEDE to say:

“An acute dose of the predicted magnitude (2,500 rem) would be fatal within a few days at most.”

This is just such an amateurish mistake it makes me think you’re just in to “Headline” news.

Next time you think about publishing an article involving a technical subject why not consult with some relevant qualified people (e.g., in this case a Health Physicist).

Mello…I think your agenda is less than honest.

SVDecomposer said...

Oops, Silly Me, I meant the LA Times.

Anonymous said...

"Ok, you’ve admitted your error."

Big of you, 5:51, since everybody knows that you, the ubiquitous Anonymous blog commenter *never* makes any mistakes.

Anonymous said...

The anti-nuke crowd can't even be pleased with a nuclear repository deep in the ground of Neveda that can safely hold nuclear waste for over 20,000 years. Given that, what do you expect them to say about Pu processing at Los Alamos?

There are far more deadly things that could happen in the US that would kill far more people. Try living next to a chemical plant, for example. Does the name "Bhophal" ring a bell?

Anonymous said...

I'm relatively new to this business, so could someone please fill me in?

I've now seen multiple posts from (or about) Greg Mello. In each of these, Mr. Mello invariably attacks the lab, for what seems like a variety of unrelated things. Who is Greg Mello? What is his area of expertise? What is his day-time job? Why does he seem to have frequent access to the press? Has he made constructive comments about the Lab that I missed?

Everyone here may know the answers, sorry for my own ignorance.

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Lab to hold National Day of Remembrance event for nuclear weapons program workers Honoring the Past and Looking to the Future

Please join the Laboratory as it honors workers, past and present, Friday,October 30, on the first National Day of Remembrance for nuclear weapons program workers and uranium miners, millers, and haulers.

Established in May by an act of Congress, this remembrance day allows the nation to publicly recognize and honor the men and women who tirelessly served our country by building and maintaining our nuclear forces during World War II through the Cold War and continuing today, said Department of
Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman. DOE headquarters, sites, and labs across the complex will mark the day with activities focused on the theme, Honoring the Past and Looking to the Future.

The Laboratory will observe the day with a program at Fuller Lodge from 10 am to 1 pm. The commemoration features an honor guard, guest speakers,testimonials, and a short commemorative video. Scheduled speakers include Governor Bill Richardson and the Lab's Principle Associate Director for Weapons Programs Charlie McMillan. Refreshments will be served.
>
>

10/28/09 7:18 AM

This would be a great time for all the dedicated and present day nuclear weapons program workers that worked for Brett Knapp (Associate Director for Weapons) and John Benner (Division Leader for Weapons) to show up and be honored for all their contributions that they made prior to being forced out their jobs in the nuclear weapon program during the past three years. How thoughtful, I didn't realize these people cared about us. I also couldn't help but notice that our Nuclear Weapon poster child Charlie MacMillian is in charge of "Principles" in the Weapon Program at the Lab. I also understand that Brett Knapp will be giving the seminal talk entitled "How to Destroyed the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Program and It's Nuclear Weapon Engineers- A Case Study of Destruction".

Frank Young said...

10/29/09 12:01 AM,
I'll let Greg respond for himself but I'd like to add my observations.

I have never found Greg to be dishonest or alarmist. I disagree with him on points too numerous to list but I've learned a lot from him. We are both trying to inform a public that is mostly not paying attention.

Greg made an error in his press release and it was corrected here very quickly. He was thankful for the correction. Isn't that the kind of person you like to talk with?

Anonymous said...

You're wasting your time, Frank. The people who demonstrate this immediate, visceral hatred towards Mello are the very same people who became instantly enchanted with Sarah Palin: not-too-bright right-wingers who are happy to remain ignorant of any facts that contradict their world view.

Anonymous said...

You're wasting your time, Frank. The people who demonstrate this immediate, visceral hatred towards Mello are the very same people who became instantly enchanted with Sarah Palin: not-too-bright right-wingers who are happy to remain ignorant of any facts that contradict their world view.

10/29/09 5:45 AM


Now here's a truly non-answer. There is nothing in the 12:01 am post that indicates preferences for Sarah Palin, the republican party, or any kind of "visceral hatred". The only visceral hatred I see is in your reply, directed towards imaginary supporters of Sarah Palin that you seem to think populate this blog.

The questions in 12:01 am are of value, and deserve an answer. What is the daytime job of Greg Mello? What is his constructive vision for Los Alamos? Is he a good thing for the lab, or is he just one of the destroyers, i.e., in the same group as Tom D'Agostino, M. Anastacio, and friends?

Anonymous said...

12:01 To answer your question, Greg Mello is a professional nonsense pusher. Unfortunately, the local, and to some limited degree, national media uses him and his organization as an expert witness in areas where he has only self-proclaimed expertise. While Greg's agenda is fairly transparent to those with genuine expertise, his agenda is too often presented as fact or legitimate counterargument by the media darlings in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. He is our own version of Helen Caldicot.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the problem is that DOE earlier and NNSA today, cannot find the money to fix this problem. The seismic issue regarding gloveboxes has existed since the 90's, and these results are based on a totally ridiculous computer model that has no basis in reality. Furthermore this matter was to be fixed in the 3 earlier efforts that now exist in a 4th effort called the TA55 reinvestment program. The NNSA chose not to seek the funding, the Congress failed to provide the funding, and on and on. The lab could pay for some of it out of the $350M that it gets annually from RTBF, but the senior management continue to underfund TA55 for the sake of keeping LANSCE. Programs at TA55 are required to pay about 1/3 of their budgets to keep the facility open...yet at LANSCE, programs get RTBF funds to buy equipment. As for the DNFSB, another letter that only serves to justify their existence in their own minds but adds nothing to safety to either the workers at TA55 or the public in general. As for Greg Mello, we can do without him. So why don't all of you liberal peace-niks stop thinking that we can live without nuclear warheads and tend to your goats because when Osama gets the bomb (or the Iranians), or when the Russians figure that the US of A can be blown back to the stone age that the world is not a safe place. Even with his Nobel prize, Obama is no match to the SS-25!

Anonymous said...

The stupidity is in the DNFSB recommendation....

1. DNFSB recommendation 2004-2 deals with active versus passive ventilation. The DNFSB has long argued for active ventilation. Yet when the Pu Facility was shut down during the Cerro Grande fire, the system worked as planned. Nor was there a release of contamination inside or outside of the facility. Neither ventilation system works in an earthquake anyway, even the infamous sandfilter that the DNFSB has long identified as the only way to have an active ventilation system.

2. To have a fire inside a glove box during a seismic event has to have an ignition source and combustible material. Most glove boxes at TA55 that have furnaces that are secured to the glove box itself and lack a combustible material inside them, so the reality of the event is low.

3. The glove boxes can be seismically anchored to avoid much of the issue here. All that requires is money, which I suspect doesn't exists in many of the budgets at TA55 since they have to pay for people to do the work. Perhaps lab management could forgo the TA55 contributions to LDRD this year and divert the monies to fix a perceived safety issue and an even more embarrassing public relations matter.

4. What is lost in the conversation is the frequency of earthquakes here or elsewhere. And the seismic event has to be what on the Richter scale? I suspect that it is probably higher than ever experienced in the southwest. When was the last time that occurred here in New Mexico? I suspect that the long dormant volcano under the Caldera has a higher probability of happening than a seismic event here.

Anonymous said...

12:58 and 1:20 hit the nails on the head.

Political spinning always trumps logic and reasonable science and engineering.

Anonymous said...

I've been following this blog closely since its creation. I've seen many extremely serious issues raised here, from dumb bureaucracy of the NNSA, to utter incompetence of the upper LANS management, to corruption and cover-up, to horrifying waste of taxpayer funds. This blog serves an invaluable function, by exposing all these things that would otherwise stay hidden. It is sad to see, though, that amateur blowhards like Mr. Mello get the same front page coverage with their sensationalism. By association, it cheapens those other posts, which deal with the real problems. Not that I would advocate censorship on this blog, but a little bit of editorial wisdom would go a long way.