On an otherwise uneventful morning in mid-April, three workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory set about cleaning an area on the ground floor of the lab’s plutonium building, PF-4, as part of a “facilitywide housekeeping day.” As they emptied unlabeled containers of legacy waste into a plastic bag — including radioactive and chemically contaminated materials from Cold War-era weapons activities — a fire ignited.
The incident occurred at one of the lab’s most sensitive sites, where the work of producing the grapefruit-sized plutonium cores of nuclear weapons is done. And despite assurances from the lab and the New Mexico Environment Department that the fire was quickly extinguished with only minor injuries, the incident highlighted, once again, a pattern of consistent mismanagement in the maintenance and cleanup of some of the most dangerous materials on Earth.
This pattern of problems also has prompted the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent panel that advises the U.S. Department of Energy and the president, to question whether the facility should continue to operate and handle increasing quantities of plutonium in coming years. On Friday, the board said it will hold a June 7 hearing in Santa Fe to question a number of experts about the lab’s ability to safely carry out future nuclear missions at PF-4.
The Department of Energy has said it intends to increase manufacturing of plutonium pits at Los Alamos over the coming decades. Two test pits were built last year, and as many as 50 to 80 pits could be built each year by 2030, a significant ramp up in the presence and handling of highly radioactive plutonium. Under President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, scheduled to be released Tuesday, funding for weapons work would increase by $1 billion in the next fiscal year.
On Friday, the nonprofit centrist policy group Third Way released what it said was a leaked version of Republican Trump’s detailed funding proposal for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which outlined the $1 billion increase for fiscal year 2018, bringing total spending to $10.2 billion. The news raised concerns among the leaders of local nuclear watchdog groups.
Greg Mello, with the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization, said this could set a dangerous precedent for increasing plutonium pit production at Los Alamos in future years.
“Fattening up our already bloated nuclear weapons stockpile is not going to improve our national security,” said Jay Coghlan, the director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, in a news release issued Friday. “New Mexicans desperately need better funded schools and health care, not expanded plutonium pit production that will cause more pollution and threaten our scarce water resources.”
This plutonium pit mission has proceeded even as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and other federal oversight agencies have flagged violations at the lab and have raised concerns about its safety and management practices.
In 2015, more than a year after an improperly packaged drum from Los Alamos burst at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, the U.S. Energy Department said the lab’s current management contract, led by Bechtel and the University of California, would not be renewed.
Inspector general reports in 2015 also said safety lapses at the lab could lead to nuclear accidents. And last year, Los Alamos was the only national lab in the U.S. to receive a failing grade for its nuclear program’s safety practices.
In January, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board wrote to then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, saying that despite upgrades at the Los Alamos plutonium facility that would allow it to better sustain an earthquake, “significant questions remain regarding the suitability of the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) for long term operations,” including the adequacy of its fire-suppression system and excess “material-at-risk,” meaning radioactive material on site.
A report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board released last week also detailed several new issues discovered as a result of the April 19 fire at PF-4, such as failures in identifying legacy waste, unclear directions from management about cleanup activities and an overall lack of clarity about who has authority in an emergency.
The report “declared the need for another corner-to-corner inventory for legacy items.”
Inside the unlabeled container that ignited was a black powder, later identified as 500 grams of lanthanum nickel hydride. Officials said it had likely been used in the mid-1990s to create a hydrogen storage bed, which, according to a report by Sandia National Laboratories, can be used to store radioactive uranium and tritium.
The material burst into flames as the workers put several unlabeled waste containers into a plastic bag, and then attempted to move the bag to a metal cart. One worker attempted to push the flaming cart away from what a report calls the “glove box line,” an area where workers handle highly radioactive materials with protective gloves attached to sealed containers. It is unclear from the report if the area contained any radioactive waste at the time.
The worker was able to smother the fire before leaving the room and calling 911.
The fire didn’t cause any radioactive leaks or contamination from other hazardous materials, according to reports, but it sent the worker to the hospital for treatment of burns on his hands, and work stalled at the building for the day.
According to a report the lab submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department, the materials that ignited were not completely stabilized until two days after the fire. “The unstable lanthanum nickel was deemed an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment by LANL Emergency Response personnel and was treated by stabilization,” the document said.
Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the lab, said, “The Laboratory’s PF-4 facility has ensured that all legacy metal hydride materials are safe, properly containerized and labeled.”
The lab did not incur any fines as a result of the incident, he added.
Following the fire, the lab modified its emergency contingency plan for an incident involving hazardous waste. The changes, which Roark said included reviewing and updating “procedures, training and hazardous material controls,” were made public last week.
Under the updated plan, the lab has added an emergency manager, provided emergency response workers with access to tools and information in the event of a fire or explosion and clarified that the Los Alamos Fire Department should direct all firefighting operations.
The changes show that the chain of command was muddled at the time of the fire in the plutonium building last month, as the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board said in its weekly report.
Failures in labeling hazardous waste, which led to the fire, also have been a recurring problem at the lab.
The lab reported 107 violations of its state hazardous waste permit for fiscal year 2016, largely because of mislabeled or unlabeled waste drums. Among these violations was a failure to inspect waste at the plutonium facility for eight days after a radiological release.
In 2015, the lab reported 421 permit violations, which the New Mexico Environment Department said at the time were largely “inconsistencies” in record-keeping and labeling. The mislabeled drums included those containing hazardous materials that had been stored upside down or labeled empty or nonhazardous when, in fact, the contents were combustible or otherwise toxic.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the lab must now conduct a corner-to-corner inventory of legacy items for PF-4 and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility, a building that dates back to the 1950s, where radioactive materials are handled and analyzed as part of the plutonium pit work.
Nora Khalil with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the panel will issue a report as a result of that inventory in June or July.
At a recent news conference in Los Alamos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was asked if the lab’s record at the plutonium facility might deter its work in pit production. Perry did not directly answer the question but said, “I think it is important that we keep that potential and that possibility on the table.
“I think we have a clear position on nuclear proliferation,” he said, “and we are going to address that appropriately.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.