Defense Board Catches Los Alamos Trying to Dodge Plutonium Safety Vulnerability

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Keith Rutter
Phone: 202-347-1122
Email: pogo@pogo.org

Defense Board Catches Los Alamos Trying to Dodge Plutonium Safety Vulnerability

WASHINGTON -  

POGO has learned from sources that the Department of Energy (DOE)
has been scrambling to delay a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
(DNFSB) report about a potential major threat to public safety posed by
plutonium at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos).  The
Department was rushing to begin addressing the safety vulnerability and
to release its own public statement before the DNFSB made its report
public. DOE is reacting to the DNFSB’s report,
which it posted to its website this morning, to Energy Secretary Chu
about a safety vulnerability involving over 10,000 pounds of plutonium
housed in Los Alamos’s Technical Area-55 (TA-55).

The vulnerability, safety controls that are insufficient to mitigate
the release of plutonium to the public, has long been known and
unaddressed by DOE and Los Alamos. Years ago, Los Alamos safety
analysts determined that the building at TA-55 is so “leaky” that it
could not prevent plutonium from being accidentally released. Last
year, however, Los Alamos’s safety analysts further calculated that in
the event of an earthquake and resultant fire,1 —a very real threat, as
Los Alamos sits on top of a fault line—the dose to the public from the
TA-55 plutonium facility could be over 100 times the acceptable level.

Current safety regulations require that safety controls be put in
place if doses to the public approach 25 rem. Yet, a year later, DOE
and Los Alamos had done nothing in response to the analysts’ findings
that more than 2500 rem could be released in the event of an earthquake
and resultant fire. Instead, DOE allowed Los Alamos to avoid dealing
with this public safety risk by saying the government will accept the
risk without forcing the contractor to impose any additional safety
controls to protect public health. That is, until the DNFSB put DOE on
notice that it is about to make the problem public. The same
vulnerabilities exist at the other nuclear facilities at Los Alamos,
including waste site TA-54 Area G which holds over 3,500 pounds of
plutonium.

In the face of DNFSB’s public revelation of the vulnerability at
TA-55, only now is DOE considering removing significant amounts of
plutonium from that facility to other DOE weapons facilities.  Sources
tell POGO that DOE also plans to inform Congress and OMB about this
problem this week. 

“This is just the most recent example of DOE not only failing to
address a safety or security vulnerability, but also attempting to
withhold bad news from top management, Congress, and the public,” said
POGO Senior Investigator Peter Stockton. “This time, though, the
Department isn’t getting away with it, and is now in full spin-control
mode.”

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The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more effective, accountable, open and honest federal government.

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