.News Update 12/07/07

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 manufacturing facility.

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 WIPP.

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.

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