Even before a radiation leak in February halted the flow of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the federal government had identified deficiencies in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s safeguards against potentially catastrophic nuclear fission accidents, a new report shows.
Los Alamos “does not meet expectations” in overall performance of its criticality safety program, states the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Report on Nuclear Criticality Safety, delivered Monday to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
Fission reaction accidents carry a risk of radiation or energy hazards, particularly to workers directly affected by them, but potentially to the public as well.
The calendar year 2013 review assessed safety measures throughout the national nuclear defense complex and identified LANL as the lone National Nuclear Security Administration site “with inadequate but improving performance.”
“It says Los Alamos is worse, and Los Alamos is worse in a lot of areas,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization that monitors the lab.
Contacted late Tuesday afternoon, a LANL spokesman referred questions to the NNSA. Phone calls to NNSA seeking comment were not returned Tuesday.
Of the six sites reviewed in the report, LANL was one of only two where the criticality safety program was inadequately staffed. Despite that finding, the report notes that the criticality safety staff at LANL is at an all-time high, and that the lab is in the second year of a long-term plan to correct the shortage.
The lab instituted a mentoring program with experienced criticality safety professionals instructing new hires about hazards, and has relied on subcontractors to fill some roles.
“Relying on subcontractors for your criticality safety expertise does not define a sound program,” Mello said. “They need to have their own people who are going to be there, and they can’t just patch in the missing expertise.”
Some of the report’s findings were particularly bothersome in light of what has happened since the assessment was conducted last year, Mello said.
In February, a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant stopped the nation’s primary underground nuclear storage site from receiving new shipments of waste generated during Cold War nuclear weapons development. The source of that leak remains under investigation, but the probe has focused on a drum containing waste that originated at LANL.
Investigators are scrutinizing the mix contained in that waste stream. It includes nitrate salts, a neutralizer added by contractor EnergySolutions with LANL approval that some chemists say made the mix more volatile, and organic kitty litter, which was used instead of the traditional clay variety and is being viewed as a possible fuel for the reaction that caused the leak.
“LANL has known weaknesses in providing personnel skilled in criticality safety and operations to serve as advisers to supervisors,” the report says. “Weaknesses have also been identified in clarity and completeness of developed controls, thoroughness of identification of abnormal conditions and validation of criticality safety codes.”
Root causes of Los Alamos’ deficiencies identified in the report included unclear documentation and understanding of roles, responsibilities, authority and accountability at the lab. And its management also was assigned some blame in the report.
“Management has not yet fully embraced its commitment to criticality safety, self-discovery, communication to the worker and continuous improvement,” the report said.
In 2013, LANL committed 38 criticality safety infractions, according to the report. Of those, 28 were of the lowest threat level and none were of the highest threat level. Details of the infractions were not included in the report.
“In the context of the problems we’ve seen in waste management recently that led to the WIPP shutdown,” Mello said, “what we should conclude is that Los Alamos is not paying close enough attention to nitty-gritty safety issues.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.