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.