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Project on Government Oversight

Defense Board Catches Los Alamos Trying to Dodge Plutonium Safety Vulnerability

Related Content: Los Alamos National Lab
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October 27, 2009

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.” 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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