U.S. Senate May Vote on New START Treaty - Safety Problems at LANL

August 27, 2010

The U.S. Senate may soon vote on ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which seeks to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia. Internationally, the vision of a nuclear weapons free world would improve safety. However, there are questions about how safety is being managed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the only Department of Energy (DOE) site manufacturing plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

In light of the upcoming START vote, this and succeeding Updates will provide background about the proposal for a new $4 billion plus Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project - Nuclear Facility (CMRR) and its role in a possible trade that makes ratification of the treaty conditional on funding the proposed building and other projects.

In the meantime, the Inspector General of the Department of Energy (DOE) released its internal audit of nuclear safety at LANL. www.ig.energy.gov/documents/IG-0837.pdf The audit found that LANL "has had a long history of concerns related to nuclear safety management" and that it "continues to have problems in fully implementing a number of critical nuclear safety management measures."

Nuclear safety requirements are designed to ensure adequate protection of workers, the public, and the environment. www.hss.energy.gov/nuclearsafety/ns Over the years, LANL has systematically failed to comply with nuclear safety laws and regulations in order to protect from a possible nuclear accident at its radiological facilities.

To make matters worse, in December DOE Administrator D'Agostino issued a six-month moratorium on internal reviews, including those related to nuclear safety oversight of LANL by the DOE Site Office. pogoarchives.org/m/nss/nnsa-memo-moratorium-on-reviews-20091218.pdf In its recent audit, the Inspector General found that the Site Office "had not always taken the actions necessary to ensure that nuclear safety at the Laboratory was improved."

DOE is allowing LANL to violate nuclear safety laws and regulations, which include radiation protection, quality assurance for all aspects of the work, and protection from criticality. Workers are put at risk of contamination by flawed designs; the consequences of which result in increased risk to the public and the environment. [December 24, 2009 ABQ Journal: "Powder Gun Blasts LANL Bunker," search archives at www.abqjournal.com] Facilities operate for long periods of time under "Justification for Continued Operations" approvals, without active remediation of the failures. ["Plutonium Facility - Fire Suppression System," go to: www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/weekly_reports/lanl/wr_la.php, then click on June 25, 2010 weekly report.]

LANL has a budget of over $2 billion a year, yet is unable to meet a number of critical nuclear safety protection laws and regulations. Joni Arends, of CCNS, asked, "If our air, water, soil and health are threatened because the government and privately-held corporations don't comply with the laws and promptly make the necessary corrections when they are caught, how safe are we? The LANL contractors have demonstrated over and over again that they are unable to follow the nuclear safety laws and regulations."

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