DOE Secretary Spells Out Los Alamos Safety Changes

Secretary Steven Chu listed them in a Feb. 2 letter to John E. Mansfield, vice chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

A new Documented Safety Analysis for the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory is being implemented, according to a Feb. 2 letter by Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to John E. Mansfield, vice chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The letter, published in Monday's Federal Register by DOE, says these charges are the first major upgrade to the Plutonium Facility's Safety Basis since 1996. The letter is available here.

Los Alamos National Security has submitted to the Los Alamos Site Office an update of the facility's DSA that includes "revised seismic accident scenarios to more accurately, but conservatively, evaluate the consequences of such scenarios," Chu wrote. "The DSA annual update, to be reviewed and approved by LASO, includes about a factor of 15 reduction from the previous DSA of the mitigated consequences to the maximally exposed off-site individual from a post-seismic fire. This proposed reduction is accomplished by establishing stricter limits to the overall material at risk allowed in the facility and by defining specific material quantity limits for various forms of material such as liquid, metal, and oxide and for heat-source plutonium. However, additional upgrades will be needed in order to meet DOE nuclear safety policies."

He listed other actions already completed or to be done soon, including:

  • Installing an automatic seismic shutdown capability for non-vital laboratory room electrical loads that provides an engineered control to reduce laboratory room electrical ignition sources;
  • Developing conceptual designs for potential seismic upgrades to key active confinement ventilation subsystems and to the fire suppression system;
  • Robustly packaging or otherwise disposing of more than 250 kilograms of plutonium-equivalent material;
  • Reducing first-floor material at risk limit by 40 percent;
  • Completing safety class encapsulation of the existing inventory of heat-source plutonium currently stored in Russian Product Containers (RPCs) that will subsequently be stored in the vault water baths.

Chu also wrote that nearly 11 tons of combustible material have been removed from the facility, mainly from its first-floor laboratory rooms, and 195 high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have been replaced with 500 degree Fahrenheit-rated HEPA filters. He also said a hydraulic model of the Fire Suppression System "identified weaknesses that are being addressed and will be used to inform decision-making for making this system safety class."

Three public interest groups, including Public Citizen and the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, have been challenging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's implementation of a new fire safety rule for the nation's nuclear power plants. The groups said Feb. 22 they have been unable to persuade or compel the NRC to release its draft document telling nuclear plant operators how to comply with the fire safety rule.

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