Los Alamos County Councilor Antonio Maggiore told members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board meeting Wednesday night in Santa Fe that all safety and security requirements for future plutonium operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) must be fully funded.
“It’s crystal clear that safety and security don’t come cheap,” Maggiore said, stressing that he was speaking as a resident who lives in Los Alamos and not in his capacity as a councilor. “I don’t think we have the ability to decide whether or not pit production levels will increase, but we have to demand that safety and security issues are fully funded.”
“When it comes to renovations, none of it happens cheaply. If you can’t fund it don’t do it. It is our experience that budgets get cut or projects get shortened or shrunk. Adequate funding is a must,” he told the Board. “We have to make sure the safety and security of our community, Lab employees and our neighbors come first. We are the ones left dealing with the legacy of poorly funded projects and cutting corners”.
PF-4, located within LANL Technical Area 55, is the only fully-operational, full-capability plutonium facility in the nation. It supports the manufacturing of pits, which are the cores that trigger nuclear explosion. The facility also supports basic and applied research in plutonium and actinide chemistry; nuclear materials separation, processing and recovery as well as plutonium metallurgy, preparation, casting, fabrication and recovery.
The goal of the Board was to gather information on the risk associated with current and future PF-4 inventory levels, actions taken by the National Nuclear Security Administration(NNSA) and LANL to address opportunities to minimize material-at-risk, actions to reduce facility risk for long-term operations and the adequacy and status of safety systems.
Panel members questioned by the Board were James McConnell, NNSA Associate Administrator for Safety, Infrastructure and Operations, Dr. Craig Leasure, LANL Principal Associate Director for Operations and Business, Richard Kacich, LANL Deputy Director, Kim Davis Lebak, NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Manager and Ted Wyka, NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Acting Assistant Manager for Operations.
Maggiore’s comments were made after more than four hours of questions and answers about the Department of Energy’s plan to increase the production of plutonium pits to 80 per year by 2030, a level Thompson said has never been done before. Last year, two cores were produced and DOE is hoping to produce 10 per year by 2022. The Lab plans to restart aqueous chloride and americium oxide operations by September of this year.
The main concerns raised by the Board were the structural integrity of PF-4 in the event of seismic activity including a 10,000-year earthquake which would cause damage or a potential facility collapse, the amount of material-at-risk stored at PF-4 and the seismic vulnerabilities of the current fire suppression system. Board members seemed particularly concerned that many of the safety systems in place at the facility date back to the 1970s and that the fire suppression system is of 1980s vintage.
They also questioned the panel about managing obsolescence and the end of life expectance of buildings. Leasure told the Board that the Lab is good at designing alternatives to old systems and that a rigorous process is in place to qualify replacement equipment. The Board also questioned the Lab’s ability to containerize material with the 50-day limit in the event of a fire or seismic event. Leisure responded that 50 days is a long time and that as a last resort, the material could be moved to another facility.
The amount of material stored on-site and how it is inventoried as well as the schedule for shipment of waste material was discussed. Lebak Davis discussed how NNSA has gained confidence in newer, more robust containers, some of them designed at LANL. There was also discussion of how material is validated as to whether it has defined use or not.
Lebak Davis said that with the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad reopening, the Lab hopes to begin shipping waste there by September. She NNSA knows what they have and needs to work with the Lab and NNSA’s counterparts at DOE headquarters because disposal has been an issue in the nuclear complex for years.
McConnell said Los Alamos has fortunately designated as a priority site for when shipments to WIPP resume, which he said is very encouraging. He said there is work to do to show Carlsbad the Lab can meet all waste acceptance criteria and that a commitment has been made that non-compliant waste will not be shipped in the future
The Board also discussed the need for improvement in the Lab’s nuclear criticality program which received the only “red” or “does not meet expectations” grade for criticality safety infractions and program non-compliance. Board members are concerned about the lack of people to have the skills to deal with nuclear criticality and that the Lab lost several of those experts in the last year. Lebak Davis said those skill sets are at a premium across the project and that NNSA is working on retaining specialists in that field.