A Los Alamos National Laboratory worker failed to close a cooling system valve, causing a 200-gallon spill of contaminated water that resulted in some of the liquid flowing into an air vent and an inactive glove box used for handling radioactive materials.

The July 19 incident at the lab’s plutonium facility, known as PF-4, has spurred an internal probe, according to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a government watchdog.

The safety board’s most recent weekly report said the spill resulted from a worker not closing a valve after refilling a water tank, coupled with another spring-closed valve not clamping shut.

Workers discovered mildly radioactive water on the facility’s first floor near a pump room and a small amount of water in the basement, a lab spokesman wrote in an email, adding all of it was contained within the building.

“There was no risk to employees, public health and safety, or the environment,” he wrote. “The majority of cleanup is complete, and the laboratory is conducting a fact-finding mission to determine the cause of the incident and will develop appropriate corrective actions.”

The safety board expressed some concern about the water draining into a vent and then through a glove box, a sealed compartment with attached gloves that workers use to handle radioactive items.

The report suggests an inflow of such water into an active glove box containing radioactive components, debris or residue could be hazardous.

Personnel will “evaluate whether water ingress into glove boxes through the ventilation system could result in an unanalyzed criticality scenario,” the report said.

Criticality is a nuclear chain reaction strong enough to continue by itself, which could trigger an explosion. Criticality can happen by placing too much radioactive material close together.

The report didn’t specify the purpose of the water, but it is commonly used in vault baths to cool certain plutonium containers.

The July spill is much smaller than the 1,800 gallons released in March when a worker also left open a valve. In that incident, an internal alarm failed to alert personnel working in the operations center.

In the most recent spill, lab workers were quickly alerted but mistook the alarm as one that goes off during routine maintenance, so they didn’t respond, the report said.

One critic of the lab’s nuclear operations said employees not being able to distinguish routine alarms from a real alarm requiring immediate action is troubling.

If an alarm system that’s supposed to improve safety instead causes more confusion — partly because workers aren’t taught the difference between one type of signal and another — then a mishap can escalate, said Greg Mello, executive director of nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group.

Confusion is more likely to occur now at PF-4 because new crews are there changing systems to gear up for producing plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, and many of them are unfamiliar with how everything works, Mello said.

In a high-hazard environment like this, production and safety are so closely intertwined as to be part of the same mission, Mello said.

“You can’t be too careful over there at PF-4,” he said. “The truth is, one accident can shut that place down for a long time.”

(8) comments

Jay Coghlan

There will inevitably be more “mistakes” with expanded plutonium pit bomb core production. Add to this the processing, also at LANL’s main plutonium facility, of up to 2.5 metric tons annually of weapons-grade plutonium from old pits trucked up from the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX. That plutonium will then be sent across the country to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for further processing, only to be sent back across the country to the already oversubscribed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico for final disposal. And, by the way, half of WIPP’s future capacity is being reserved for radioactive bomb wastes from future expanded pit production.

No future pit production is to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing stockpile. Instead it will all be for speculative new-design nuclear weapons that can’t be tested because of the existing international testing moratorium, thereby perhaps degrading confidence in stockpile reliability. Or, maybe worse yet, it could prompt the U.S. back into testing, with severe international proliferation consequences.

The fallacy of these plans is why we need public review of expanded plutonium pit production, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is relying upon old and outdated NEPA studies done in 2008. That is why my organization Nuclear Watch New Mexico has sued NNSA for a nation-wide “programmatic environmental impact statement” for expanded plutonium pit bomb core production.

Separately, we believe that NNSA must conduct a new “site-wide environmental impact statement” for LANL as well. It should analyze the inevitable risks of expanded pit production, intentional radioactive tritium releases, wildfires exacerbated by climate change and where future radioactive wastes will go when there is currently no room.

But NNSA doesn’t want the public to know about all that.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

www.nukewatch.org

Ann Maes

A months delay reporting it to the public?!?!

Khal Spencer

If you bothered to read the pdf, you will see that it was reported to the DFNSB the same week of the incident.

Joe Brownrigg

But it was NOT reported to the public, in public media. This IS cause for concern, especially because the Lab has a history of "mistakes."

Khal Spencer

How often does the New Mexican read the DNFSB reports? Monthly?

Khal Spencer

The reports are publically released.

https://www.dnfsb.gov/documents/reports/site-rep-weekly-reports

Joe Brownrigg

That's hardly "publicly" in any pragmatic sense of the term.

Khal Spencer

The media is lazy. The stuff was out there for anyone who wanted to check.

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