Public Asks LANL to Pause Nuclear Operations Due to Safety Concerns
December 7, 2007
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board held a public hearing recently
about safety and security issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
The Board heard from Department of Energy (DOE) and LANL about steps they
have taken to address these issues. In two cases, LANL plutonium and waste
operations were "paused" in order to address safety and security issues.
The Board also heard from the public who were concerned about the number of
outstanding safety and security issues and urged DOE and LANL to take more
safety pauses in order to adequately address them.
The Board is charged with reviewing and evaluating the content and
implementation of standards related to the design, construction, operation
and decommissioning of DOE defense nuclear facilities. The Board is also
responsible for investigating those facilities that the Board determines has
adversely affected or may adversely affect the health and safety of workers
and the public.
In February 2007, the Board wrote a letter to DOE setting out five actions
that would substantially improve safety at LANL. The actions included
strengthening DOE safety oversight; improving the safety documents that
allow for operation of nuclear facilities; and developing and implementing
effective safety programs across all LANL nuclear operations. The final two
actions involved eliminating known hazards, such as the problems with
shipping radioactive and hazardous waste from LANL's radioactive waste dump
at Area G to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP); and increasing federal
management over new projects to support expanded plutonium pit production.
William Ostendorff, a Principal Deputy Administrator at DOE Headquarters in
Washington, DC, stated that under the latest Complex Transformation
proposal, LANL would become the nation's plutonium pit production and
The Board is concerned that while DOE is proposing to expand operations at
LANL, the necessary staff to oversee key areas, such as engineering,
operations and health and safety, are not in place and it may take years to
ensure that qualified people are serving in those positions. There is
additional concern about conducting essential work in aging facilities that
have not been properly maintained.
Recent examples of paused operations include the suspension of nuclear
materials operations in the plutonium facility due to continuing problems
with the criticality safety program and significant problems with worker
training and certification. Criticality refers to the smallest amount of
nuclear material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction.
Another example is the recent suspension of operations at Area G when other
criticality safety problems developed in preparing waste for shipment to
Many who provided public comments were appreciative that the Board held the
hearing in Los Alamos. They questioned how current operations could
continue, let alone be expanded, at LANL with all the problems cited by the
Board. Several speakers strongly suggested that LANL pause defense nuclear
operations in order to address the myriad of safety and security problems.
A complete transcript and video recording of the hearing will be available
on the Board's website at http://www.dnfsb.gov. Public
comments will be accepted until January 5, 2008.