* Los Alamos National Laboratory briefly loses control of criticality experiment.

* LANL's tritium detectors found to be inaccurate.

* Rocky Flats OK'd to prepare waste for WIPP.

* Celebrate Earthday with CCNS on April 25, in Santa Fe Plaza.


* A software glitch combined with a hardware failure caused a criticality experiment to go briefly out of control at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL,) on February 26. The mechanical engineer running the experiment from another, nearby building, halted the experiment manually when she and her crew, watching and listening on video and speakers, observed that the joystick had failed, and that the motor driving two sheets of uranium on Plexiglas plates toward one another had speeded up instead of slowing down. None of the lab workers received higher than normal dosages of radiation. Lab spokesmen claim that, because of the materials involved, the experiment could never have reached criticality, even if the crew had failed to act.

Rick Anderson, leader of the lab's Advanced Nuclear Technology group said that workers and the public were never in any danger. But Anderson was worried by the fact that computers controlling the assembly where the incident occurred should have detected the chip failure in the joystick and stopped the operation, but failed to do so. It turned out that, during a switchover to a new computer system two or three years ago, a programmer had disabled crucial fail-safe instructions in the computer software. The programmer, said Anderson, had been "counseled". The double error raised questions as to the software safeguards against nuclear accident at the nation's only facility for criticality experiments.


* This week scientists at LANL admitted that tritium detection equipment, which should measure the amount of tritium emissions in the air, has been underestimating the amount by as much as a factor of three. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, travels through the air as a part of water vapor. During the summer months, the collectors at LANL were not collecting the correct amount of water; as a result, the lab missed much of the tritium it should have detected.

Craig Eberhart, an environmental scientist at LANL's Clean Air Group said that he wasn't sure why the detectors did not capture the correct amount of water vapor. Eberhart stated that recalculating the radioactive dose for persons at the East Gate brought the estimated dosage to 0.028 millirem. Previously the lab claimed this was only 0.013 millirem, based on figures from the faulty collectors. At Area G, the lab's radioactive waste storage and disposal facility, where earlier calculations put the dosage at 1.5 millirem, new figures show a dosage of 4.7 millirem, three times the original dose. The federal limit on radioactive air emissions is 10 millirem per year for a member of the public. The limit is higher for workers. Area G, which has tritium contaminated waste, has the highest level of tritium emissions at Los Alamos. The Environmental Protection Agency, New Mexico Environment Department and Department of Energy have been notified of the measuring error. Eberhart says that, using the lab's high-quality meteorological data, it will be possible to reconstruct faulty historical tritium emission levels.


* Rocky Flats nuclear plant outside Denver, Colorado is now certified to prepare nuclear waste for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, the Department of Energy, (DOE) announced on Tuesday, April 7. The former Colorado nuclear weapons facility, which was closed because of environmental contamination and nuclear safety violations, has become the second DOE site to obtain WIPP certification. Los Alamos National Laboratory was the first site to be certified, in September 1997. Rocky Flats had been preparing for certification since October 1995. The plant has more than 6,000 drums of transuranic and transuranic mixed waste, and officials said they expect to generate more that 30,000 more drums during the site's cleanup. Over 200 drums of non-mixed transuranic waste are ready now for shipment to the nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico. Earlier this month, the DOE's Carlsbad Area Office told departing Energy Secretary Federico Peľa that WIPP is ready to open, but the project is still waiting for approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.


* CCNS invites all of you to visit the Santa Fe Plaza on Saturday, April 25, where we will join with other environmental and community groups to celebrate Earth Day. There will be a unparade, and booths of various organizations. Volunteers who would like to help with the CCNS booth, please call us at 986-1973. We hope to see all of you there.





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