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Unnatural Disasters

Why LANL’s latest media dust-up shouldn’t be taken lightly

October 29, 2009, 12:00 am

Cross-posted at SFReeper.com

On Monday, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board released a damning report on the safety of the main plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The crux of the report is that in the case of a “seismic event,” or major earthquake, along the geologic fault that underlies the lab, the ensuing damage (think earthquake triggers fire triggers big radioactive explosion) would be more than 100 times the allowable federal standard.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. The Safety Board—along with LANL—has known this for the past five years. In 2007, the Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with overseeing safety at all 14 sites in the US Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex (which in New Mexico includes LANL, Sandia National Laboratories and the WIPP), released official findings that the likelihood of a seismic event along the Los Alamos fault was much higher than previously thought. The natural conclusion, of course, was that the relevant safety systems would have to be improved immediately—but according to Safety Board Vice Chair John E. Mansfield, that wasn’t how it happened.

Around the time the new risk assessment came out, Mansfield says, the Safety Board was involved in an effort to get all the DOE’s nuclear facilities to install active ventilation systems—ones that would keep working even in the event of a cataclysmic accident. When the increased seismic risk at Los Alamos became apparent, getting better ventilation and fire suppression systems at LANL became even more important, and Mansfield says the Safety Board “took special care to point out to Los Alamos” that its safety system was inadequate.

“Los Alamos’ answer was very much delayed,” Mansfield recalls, “and when we finally got it, it effectively said, ‘Well, we’re not going to worry about it.’” According to Mansfield, LANL was one of only two facilities that excused itself from federal safety guidelines.

“We just couldn’t buy that,” Mansfield says. “What we’d hoped they would say was, ‘It’s going to be extremely difficult; it’s going to take a lot of money; it’s going to take a lot of years; and we’re going to commit to try to get funding,’” he continues. “But they didn’t say that. They just said, “[We’re] not required to meet the overall safety strategy.”

After going back and forth with LANL over safety guidelines for the better part of this year, Mansfield says the Board finally warned Los Alamos that it would issue a public recommendation for safety improvements at the lab. The DOE has 45 days to accept, partially reject or reject the recommendations and 135 days to publish an implementation plan. According to Mansfield, the Safety Board even warned LANL that the recommendations would come out this month: “We said…‘It would be good if you had an immediate response instead of having this thing hang out there with no word from you.’” To an extent, LANL did so; SFR received e-mails yesterday from LANL communications director Jeff Berger, who cited eight actions taken by the lab in 2009 to improve fire safety, and from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s deputy public affairs director, Jennifer Wagner, who wrote:

“NNSA has made numerous improvements in the safety posture of its plutonium operations in recent years, which include…the approval of the first comprehensive safety analysis since 1996. That analysis identified the need for additional facility upgrades to meet the NNSA’s safety goals. Although the analysis concluded that operations are currently safe, a more sophisticated analysis is needed…”

That sounds like a lot of analysis to me. If the latest analysis underscored the need for better safety…was the current safety infrastructure really “safe”?

In the end, the Safety Board’s recommendations for more stringent and effective fire suppression and ventilation systems at LANL are just that: recommendations. They’re not binding, but Mansfield says no Energy Secretary has ever rejected a Safety Board recommendation.

But according to Greg Mello, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, “the Safety Board has never exerted itself like this before.” Mansfield’s Oct. 26 letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu uses words like “severity” and “urgency” to “argue forcefully for the Secretary to avail himself of the authority under the Atomic Energy Act” to implement the recommendations—wording Mello says reveals the crucial nature of the safety situation at LANL.

Still, Mello, a longtime disarmament activist, says that any action LANL takes will depend on politics. “If [US Sen. Jeff] Bingaman or [US Sen. Tom] Udall tell the lab that they better listen hard to the DNFSB, [that] they have to follow the rules,” Mello says, “That will affect [LANL’s] behavior.” According to Mello, LANL brings too much money and too many jobs to New Mexico for anyone to want to properly question it—or, for that matter, to make a nuclear weapons lab spend a bunch of money on decidedly un-sexy safety upgrades.

“LANL has its own problems,” Mansfield says. “It’s got older facilities. It’s got a mindset that made it great, that protected the nation for 60 years now, and it’s the best scientific lab in the country, just about. We just need to convince them that some things you have to control.”

Before a big earthquake convinces them, that is.

 

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