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Study: Quake could pose risk to Los Alamos lab

Study: Quake could pose risk to Los Alamos lab

An independent safety oversight board is warning that a major earthquake could cause a catastrophic fire triggering a massive radiation leak at the main plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The four-page letter issued Tuesday by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board urged Energy Secretary Stephen Chu to make changes to reduce potential hazards.
The board is an auditing agency that oversees federal nuclear programs. It typically examines worst-case scenarios involving national nuclear facilities, then makes recommendations to the Department of Energy on how to minimize risks.
The plutonium laboratory building, known as Technical Area-55, is the center for plutonium operations at the Los Alamos complex. It is where plutonium cores are manufactured for use in nuclear weapons.
Lab officials released a response, citing several actions taken this year to improve fire safety at the building, including repacking plutonium into containers that would survive the accident.
The lab also installed ventilation filters that perform at higher temperatures, improved the fire suppression system, implemented new controls for combustibles, added fire extinguishers to critical areas and developed plans to support firefighter response.
"Protecting the health and safety of our employees, the public, and the environment while conducting operations all across the laboratory, particularly at the plutonium facility, TA-55, is our primary concern," the laboratory's statement said.
A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons programs, Jennifer Wager, said the agency will present a formal response to the board later this week.
Under the board's scenario, a catastrophic fire at the main plutonium facility could release up to 100 times more radiation than permitted under Department of Energy standards.
"Given the magnitude of the potential consequences to the public, the board believes DOE must develop expeditiously a defensible safety strategy for seismically induced events at the plutonium facility and a credible plan for implementing this strategy," the board's letter says.
Greg Mello, director of the lab watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the letter should serve as a wake-up call for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the laboratory for the DOE, to adequately fund warranted safety improvements.
"Whether NNSA wants to or not, the agency needs to dip into current operating funds, which are more than ample, to fix up" the facility, Mello said.


Updated : 2021-02-28 12:04 GMT+08:00