Los Alamos National Laboratory is planning to move its plutonium analysis into a radiology building where officials say the work can grow.

Relocating the plutonium work from a 1950s-era chemistry and metallurgy facility to the radiology lab will allow an increase in the amount of low-level radioactive material technicians can handle — to 400 grams from the current 38.6 grams — as LANL ramps up its production of nuclear weapons triggers.

The radiology lab is designed to house nuclear operations and is conveniently located near LANL’s plutonium facility, said Toni Chiri, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees national labs.

“The project would allow NNSA to optimize the use of laboratory space for all plutonium work at Los Alamos,” Chiri said in an email.

But the move will require significant upgrades to the radiology facility.

Federal inspectors have found a variety of fire-safety deficiencies at the lab, including flaws in fire barriers, fire penetration seals, fire doors and sprinkler systems, according to a February report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

In a report the safety board released in March, Triad National Security LLC, which contracts with the federal government to operate LANL, also noted five stairwells must be repaired to ensure safe emergency evacuation.

Triad estimated making all the fixes could take four to five years.

Chiri said she couldn’t comment on how the fire deficiencies would affect the lab project.

The radiology lab will be reclassified as a Hazardous Category 3 nuclear facility, Chiri said.

That means it will have “the potential for significant but localized consequences.”

Such hazards are lower than Category 2, which can cause “significant on-site consequences” and risks of Category 1 facility, which could cause serious off-site impacts, such as those posed by nuclear reactors, according to an Energy Department guidebook.

There is no cost estimate or time frame yet for transforming the radiology lab to a plutonium research lab, Chiri said. The conversion will have minimal impact on employees who use the building, she added.

The conversion is part of a larger “chemistry and metallurgy research replacement” project outlined in the Energy Department’s 2021 congressional budget.

A more ambitious replacement plan was scrapped during the Obama administration when estimated costs of the new facility ballooned from about $500 million to more than $6 billion.

Work in the overhauled radiology lab will include probing plutonium that will be used in producing so-called pits, the grapefruit-sized explosive centers in nuclear warheads.

Plans call for LANL to manufacture 30 plutonium pits a year by 2026 and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make 50 pits yearly by 2030. The most pits LANL has produced in a year was 11 for Navy missiles more than a decade ago.

Boosting LANL’s capacity to analyze plutonium directly relates to the push to ramp up pit manufacturing as part of a national effort to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonprofit research organization that has been critical of the plan for ramped-up pit production at LANL, said the project to overhaul the radiology lab is “very significant.”

“It’s a key piece of the puzzle of expanded pit production,” he said.

Coghlan said he’s not surprised LANL and the National Nuclear Security Administration would start a project like this amid unresolved fire-safety issues.

“They never do their homework,” he said.

(8) comments

Ernest Sturdevant

It’s July in New Mexico and the annual bloviation of revisionist historians is in the air like springtime manure on the fields. While both are fertilizer, only the manure has any practical value. Although, the bloviators are a barometer of how effective two generations of undemocratic military industrial complex propaganda has been in erasing the intellect and morality of folks who have quaffed the Kool-Aid – Goofy Grape flavored. (At least in Albuquerque, we can attribute the intellectual rot to the delicious Aviation Fuel additive in the local water table, courtesy of the heroes at KAFB.)

The facts are that LANL, founded in secrecy with no public scrutiny as a terrorist outpost in the expendable state of New Mexico, to create nothing but death and destruction, remains so to this day. It doesn’t matter to the bloviators that The BlackHole of Boondogelry has failed, for 20 years, in its current “pit” mission, that it’s failed in safety and operates without public oversight. For the death cultists whose patriotic jingoism is so vital to the LANL “mission,” issues like transparency, accountability, and democracy are anathema. (Is that why so many self identify as Christian?)

The rest of us have a few days to steal ourselves for the remainder of this seasonal swarm as the 75th anniversary of the world’s greatest war crimes in history, the terrorist incineration of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are just around the corner. The anniversary of the Trinity (gotta love the biblical allusion-WWJD?) Test was only a hors d'oeuvre compared to approaching bloviation feast on August 6 & 9. We look forward to the familiar old Dobbins that have already hobbled, knock-kneed, and mangy, out of the “America, Love It, or Leave It” barnyard:

It led to a quick end to World War II.

It saved the lives of American soldiers.

It potentially saved the lives of Japanese soldiers and civilians.

It forced Japan to surrender, which it appeared unwilling to do.

It was revenge for Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor.

For 75 years, like mindless responses in a Medieval Mass, we’ve heard these oft repeated tropes.

Never mind that FOIA documents, independent historians, and the writings, including diaries of participants prove otherwise. As the patron Saint of modern fascist mythmaking stated: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”― Joseph Goebbels.

Sadly, we live in a community that has a Museum extolling the virtues of these false fantasies, further muddying truth and historical fact. (Can you imagine a Museum in Germany praising the Holocaust?)

For now, take heart, peaceniks, this will soon pass, at least until next year. In the meantime we can reflect on past family dinners, when our crazy Uncle bloviated his usual litany of fascist screed to the rolling of eyeballs and stifled snorts. If only our parents had the courage to invite him to leave the table or take his plate to the back porch!

Jay Coghlan

As is his consistent pattern Mello (intentionally?) misrepresents the position of others.

Nuclear Watch did not “sign[..] an agreement to not oppose the construction of this building in return for a series of dog-and-pony shows.” Instead, it was an agreement with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and others to not insist on a formal hearing for the Rad Lab’s radioactive air emissions permit while explicitly reserving the right to insist on a public hearing for the air permit of the much larger “Nuclear Facility” that was to follow. The Rad Lab’s radioactive air emissions would have been miniscule before the Department of Energy raised its plutonium inventory. However, that is now open to question, including the present legitimacy of the Rad Lab’s existing air permit, given LANL’s chronic nuclear safety problems.

Moreover, the “dog and pony shows” in which he himself often grandstanded yielded valuable information over time, such as the Nuclear Facility’s 10-fold escalating costs that finally led to its cancellation. As Mello states, Nuclear Watch and the other involved parties have petitioned the Department of Energy to resume those public meetings because they are one of the few venues for public information on exorbitant, provocative expanded plutonium pit production since DOE has intentionally shut down other public venues required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mello refers to himself as “more knowledgeable parties.” Perhaps he should explain why he supports expanded plutonium pit production at a second site, the Savannah River Site, which has never done it before. Finally, one has to wonder if his strong criticisms of the reporter and the New Mexican aren’t simply due to the fact that he wasn’t quoted.

For those who might be interested, Nuclear Watch’s long opposition to both the Rad Lab and expanded plutonium pit production is documented in our 2018 formal comments to DOE at

https://nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/NWNM-Rad-Lab-comments-4-25-18.pdf?x68309 and

https://nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/NWNM-Addendum-Rad-Lab-comments-4-27-18.pdf?x68309

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

www.nukewatch.org

Mike Johnson

Excellent, so good to see LANL getting back to doing what they were formed to do, and what the scientists are educated and trained to do. Maybe this will lead to some very necessary refocusing and housecleaning, as the "global warming" advocate and activists are removed, along with the amateur, uneducated epidemiologists who have come out of the woodwork lately. These roles are NOT a LANL mission.

Greg Mello

We are confused by this story. The lede concerns decisions made almost 20 years ago and others made in 2012. The DNFSB concerns -- which are good to cover -- date from months and years ago, and hardly encompass all the problems faced. The challenge of converting RLUOB into what is now called "PF-400" has been highlighted by LANL itself for years before that, as well as by the Congressional Research Service; placing the burden of truth on the embattled DNFSB only sets that small agency up for more attacks. The article omits the most fundamental problem, which is that this building will never meet statutory requirements for nuclear facilities because the materials and workers involved in building it were never certified for that purpose, and the design intentionally did not consider the seismic risk that known at the time. Also, the original design criterion for the building was that it would contain only 8 grams of plutonium in "at risk" forms, not 39 grams as stated; the change in material at risk is thus much more stark than stated here. Also importantly, the building could actually contain much more plutonium than 400 grams, and almost certainly would if NNSA finds that the balance is stored in containers that will survive the "design basis accident." These problems could have been avoided if the reporter had reached out to more knowledgeable parties. Most importantly, the article does not inform the public of breaking news pertinent to the subject at hand uncovered by a volunteer journalist in Los Alamos. Overall, the New Mexican treats LANL with kid gloves. In our view, the paper needs to reach beyond "watchdogs" and the concept of "watchdogs" that watch for mistakes made by an implicitly "legitimate" enterprise, and to people like ourselves who have actually -- and successfully to date -- opposed industrial pit production at LANL. There is also the problem that a coalition of local groups, including Nuclear Watch, signed an agreement to not oppose the construction of this building in return for a series of dog-and-pony shows at which they would be allowed to speak, which they would like to start up again. We suspect the New Mexican is afraid of offending LANL and the powerful Democrats who serve it. This appears to be the basic problem that generates such gingerly-treated, superficial, often erroneous coverage. We can only beg the New Mexican to dig deeper and "bite the bullet" on its LANL coverage, rather than let its readership down, as it is now doing.

Khal Spencer

"...breaking news pertinent to the subject at hand uncovered by a volunteer journalist..."?

Link?

joe martinez

The anti-nuke "usual suspects" will be weighing in with negative comments. As is always the case, people in the stands think they know more about the game than the coach and the players. LANL has been here since the 40s so if you've moved next to the airport after that, don't complain about he noise.

Dee Finney

Stop this madness, we have enough pits and weapons to destroy the earth many times over. What about a plan for all of us down winders in case of an accident, we are doomed if anything happens. No infrastructure, no plan for an emergency, stop this madness.

Sandra Anderson

exactly

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