Nuclear Weapons Lab Underestimates Risk of Radiation Leak, Study Finds

One of the nation’s main nuclear weapons labs has sharply underestimated the amount of radiation that could leak from the facility as a result of an earthquake, according to a federal advisory panel.

The radiation could be more than four times as intense as the Los Alamos National Laboratory predicted in a safety analysis last year, according to a recent report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The New Mexico laboratory’s analysis included “multiple, substantial deficiencies,” wrote Peter S. Winokur, chairman of the advisory board. The higher estimate calls for “additional safety controls” and “prompt action,” he added.

The report’s findings raise questions about the safety and reliability of Los Alamos, which says its work includes ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Analyses like the one in question “are fundamental elements for ensuring safe operations at defense nuclear facilities,” Winokur wrote.

The Los Alamos facility is near geologic fault lines that show signs of past quakes, according to a 2007 “seismic hazard analysis” performed for the laboratory.

The advisory board’s findings come at a time when nuclear weapons laboratories, which are managed for the government by private contractors, are pushing for greater freedom from oversight.

Former Los Alamos Director Robert Kuckuck said in written testimony to a House committee on June 27 that “burdensome” oversight at Los Alamos means that staff have “invented ‘work-arounds’ to avoid confrontation with the overseers,” such as the advisory board. Kuckuck said he favored a legislative proposal that would downgrade the board’s power.

Laboratory officials have complained that the government doesn’t trust them. At a Senate subcommittee hearing in April, Penrose C. Albright, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that a major issue at the labs is “the unwillingness of the government to allow the people who they have actually hired to operate these facilities to make rational assessments of risk and operate the facilities and make the trades that they need to make in order to do the mission.”

In contrast, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has long put the contractor-run nuclear weapons labs on its list of “high risk” government programs. The GAO wrote in 2011 that the labs are “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” because federal oversight is inadequate.

The Los Alamos analysis in question, which was mandated by the government, focused on what would happen if an earthquake caused a fire at the New Mexico facility and thereby released radiation. 

Following a federal guideline, Los Alamos was estimating the dose a “maximally-exposed offsite individual . . . at the site boundary” would receive if he or she stayed there and remained exposed for at least two hours, according to Winokur.

According to an advisory board document, the Los Alamos laboratory estimated that a person in that scenario could incur 23 rem total effective dose equivalent (TEDE)—a measure of the radiation absorbed by the human body and the resulting tissue damage.

However, the advisory board concluded that the dose would exceed 100 rem TEDE.

The laboratory’s estimate was just below a Department of Energy “evaluation guideline” of 25 rem TEDE, the advisory board chairman wrote. A finding of more than 25 would require the laboratory to implement the highest level of safety controls the department can prescribe.The advisory board’s estimate was at least four times that threshold.

In an interview, Winokur said the advisory board’s estimate was “not meant to be a realistic assessment” of the impact on people in nearby communities.The potential health effects on actual populations were beyond the scope of the analysis, he said.

The radiation risk to workers at the site of a leak is usually higher than the risk to outsiders, he said.

According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission fact sheet on the biological effects of radiation, exposure to greater than 50 rem has been associated with cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, esophagus, liver, lung, ovaries, stomach and bone marrow, as well as leukemia.

Located about 35 miles outside of Santa Fe, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is the birthplace of the atomic bomb and was the site of deadly radiation accidents early in the nuclear age. It currently houses four metric tons of plutonium, according to the government. That is approximately as much plutonium as is contained in the nuclear weapon arsenals of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan combined, according to Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

The part of the Los Alamos laboratory that is the subject of the conflicting safety assessments, known simply as the “Plutonium Facility,” manufactures nuclear weapon components called plutonium pits.

Los Alamos is operated by Bechtel Corp., University of California, Babcock & Wilcox Co., and URS Corp.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is a government panel that advises the president and the secretary of Energy about health and safety issues at defense-related nuclear facilities—as distinct from commercial nuclear power plants. Its criticism of the Los Alamos study is contained in a May 8 report by its staff and a June 18 letter from Winokur to Thomas P. D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that oversees the weapons labs.

“The Board’s staff identified multiple, substantial deficiencies of a non-conservative nature” in the Los Alamos analysis, Winokur wrote.

Los Alamos referred questions about the report to the NNSA, which did not respond to the Project On Government Oversight’s requests for comment.

Though the dangers of earthquakes near nuclear facilities have received heightened attention since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, the issue is not new to Los Alamos.The laboratory’s focus on its own vulnerability to quakes goes back years.

In 2009, the advisory board said that the risk of fires induced by earthquakes at the Plutonium Facility required "immediate attention and action.”

The board’s recent report is part of its ongoing oversight of safety upgrades at the laboratory’s Plutonium Facility. The report said that Los Alamos has completed some “near-term compensatory measures” over the past few years to reduce the risk of fires caused by earthquakes. The laboratory has also drawn up a long-term plan for additional upgrades to ventilation and fire suppression systems, the report said.

In his written response to POGO Winokur said the timeline for installing “seismically qualified” ventilation and fire suppression systems “extends to 2020.”

Both the Los Alamos and advisory board radiation leakage projections represent marked improvements from an earthquake and fire safety analysis Los Alamos performed in 2008. That study predicted “a mitigated offsite dose consequence” of more than 2,000 rem TEDE, according to the new advisory board report.

In the report, the board detailed several alleged errors in the laboratory’s 2011 safety analysis.

For example, the board said the laboratory erroneously assumed that walls consisting of “gypsum board panels”—an apparent reference to drywall—would remain intact after an earthquake.

“Inappropriately relying on laboratory walls to perform functions that they are not credited or qualified to perform” potentially underestimates the amount of radiation that would leak, the report said.

The board also found that the laboratory did not adequately consider the presence of combustible material in the facility. For example, the board said that the basement at the Plutonium Facility houses both combustible material and electrical panels that are not programmed to shut off in the event of an earthquake. Though the two could combine to ignite a fire in the basement, the laboratory assumed that that risk was “not credible,” the board said.

Additionally, the board said gloveboxes at the facility—airtight boxes in which laboratory workers handle plutonium—feature shielding made of combustible material.  The laboratory did not fully account for the flammable shielding, the report said.

The board also accused the laboratory of underestimating the quantity of fine, “respirable” plutonium powder that would be released into the air. The board said the laboratory based its calculations on “an arbitrary factor” and the resulting estimate “cannot be technically justified.”

The laboratory considered only one fire breaking out in the aftermath of an earthquake even though the Plutonium Facility could be threatened by multiple fires breaking out simultaneously, the board said.

The board said that “for one accident the mitigated dose consequences to the public exceed 100 rem total effective does equivalent (TEDE), which would require additional safety controls for the facility.”

This isn’t the first time the board has accused the nuclear weapons laboratory of basing a safety analysis on incomplete information and a faulty process. The report noted that the board raised similar concerns in a 2008 letter to the agency that oversees the nuclear weapons laboratories.

Nor is the risk of a fire near Los Alamos strictly hypothetical. Last summer, the laboratory was threatened by what the Associated Press called the largest fire in New Mexico history.