A safety report issued to Los Alamos National Lab's private operator, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, documents specific problems with the facilities at LANL's biggest waste dump, including structural sagging that could leave the site vulnerable to lightning-caused fires.
The report identifies problems with three of the "domes," or tent-like structures, at the Area G waste dump, which holds about 10.8 million cubic feet of waste in below-ground dumps and above-ground containers, sheltered by fabric domes. The domes are all still in use despite the problems, and the letter chides LANS for these and other safety issues, calling them "an inordinately large number of findings and observations."
The Area G findings are significant partly because radioactive waste storage is "key not only to compliance with the New Mexico Consent Order [the legal document prescribing LANL cleanup] but also with reducing the site's large but distributed radioactive inventory that is close to [the] public with few engineered barriers."
According to the report, one of the wire structures supporting an Area G dome is "significantly leaning," resulting in "sag" in the dome. Another dome's sagging wire has been addressed by "administratively controlled" measures, which, as explained at a recent meeting of a federal nuclear safety oversight board, means it is dependent on continual staff actions to ensure its adequacy. The report deems the seemingly MacGyver-esque repair part of the facility's "inoperable credited safety system."
The sagging wires are part of a system to protect the domes from lightning strikes that could cause fire. The report also notes that several Area G structures that require lightning protection systems don't have them at all.
Addressing the safety problems at Area G overall, the report notes that "many of the issues are not new" and that the report results "call into question the effectiveness of past actions and adequacy of current practices."
As SFR previously reported, Area G is the LANL facility that runs furthest afoul of federal recommendations for radiation exposure to the public. Federal recommendations require nuclear facilities to estimate the amount of radiation that the public could be exposed to in various accident scenarios—no scenario should subject the public to more than 25 rems of radiation (see linked story for definition of a rem). If a plane crashed into Area G, a member of the public standing outside LANL could be subjected to 1,795 rem over the course of the next 50 years, as radiation stays in the body permanently once it enters (usually through inhalation of plutonium or other radioactive particles). That exposure would correspond to a higher risk of cancer for the exposed person, which would increase each year throughout his or her lifetime.