Plutonium Operations at LANL Shut Down

November 20, 2009

Plutonium operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are shut down due to problems with the fire suppression sprinkler system at Technical Area-55, according to information received by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). In an October 17 letter to Steven Chu, Department of Energy Secretary, Danielle Brian, Executive Director of POGO, said:

"We were shocked to learn that Los Alamos National Laboratory's Plutonium Facility (PF-4) once again had to stop its main operations because of the inadequacy of its fire suppression system-only three and a half years after a complete overhaul of that system was paid for by the taxpayers.

"Apparently, PF-4 had to be put into "standby mode" for a month because sprinklers covering 13 of the 100 areas in the facility were found not to function properly. By our estimates, if each area has a minimum of 10 sprinklers, at least 130 sprinklers were deficient. The only good news is that this problem was discovered before there was a fire in one of those areas. On the not-so-bright side, two weeks ago, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) found that the facility would be vulnerable to a catastrophic fire in the case of a severe earthquake. However, it does not take an earthquake to start a fire.

"There should be no reason this problem was not resolved after a similar problem was uncovered in the same building in early 2006. At that time, PF-4 was forced to shut down for over a month when it was discovered that 300 of 1,000 sprinkler heads in the fire suppression system had been non-functional for years because they had been painted over. POGO alerted then-Secretary Samuel Bodman as well as Congress. LANL spent more than $10 million to replace the sprinkler heads, which was reimbursed by the government.

"This time, taxpayers should not foot the bill for the repairs, or for the salaries of the PF-4 employees for the month that the facility was not operational. These costs should be considered unallowable expenses as part of DOE's contract with LANL, and LANL itself should have to pay."

LANL spokesman Kevin Roark responded by saying, "The letter from POGO to Secretary Chu almost entirely mischaracterizes the situation. The facility was never shut down."

POGO is an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

Roark confirmed that in 2006 LANL did receive $10 million for renovation of the sprinkler system. In some cases the sprinkler heads had been painted over.

Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "It's nearly impossible to comprehend how this could happen. Why were the sprinkler heads painted in the first place? Who signed off on the inspection form? Why has it taken years for the correction to be made? We again call for plutonium operations to be stopped at LANL. We can no longer accept the risk for operations that are so poorly managed."

  • Please Note: We have since learned that some of the fire suppression problems include the lack of adequate water pressure within the system to meet safety standards. See the reports of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board for the weeks of October 2, October 9, October 16, and October 23, 2009

    Back to News Index