Friday, November 18, 2011

DNFSB Criticizes LANL's Risky Practices

17 Nov 2011/ Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB, or the Board) public meeting held at the Santa Fe, NM Convention Center / Thursday, 17 Nov 2011/ 1PM - 5:30PM; 7PM - 9PM.

The Board was created in 1989 to advise the President and the DOE Secretary on safety issues at the DOE's nuclear weapons laboratories. The Board has ~100 full-time staff and an annual budget of ~$22 million.

Today, safety practices at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will be addressed by the Board. Of particular interest to the Board are:

 1) effects of the latest information about seismic activity beneath the Pajarito Plateau as it concerns the ongoing planning for the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL;

 2) effects of lessons learned from the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas wildfires on planning for the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL, as well as on the Area G cleanup, and upgrades to the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility;

 3) effects of lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi natural disaster on planning for the CMRR-NF construction project, and on other projects at LANL.

The Board Chair, Peter Winokur, and four other Board members listen to short formal presentations from two panels of LANL/NNSA managers (6 per panel), and ask follow-up questions. Approximately 50 members of the general public are also in attendance. However, no questions from the general public are allowed and several uniformed security personnel are present to keep order. Nevertheless, the general public has been invited to present comments, 5 minutes per person, during a 45 min period at the end of the meeting. The Board Chair also announces that the meeting record will be held open until 19 Dec, 2011 and that anyone may add remarks to the record. Proceedings of the meeting are being recorded by means of redundent audio and video, a stenographic record is being created, and several photographers are at work in the meeting hall.

Panel member Donald Cook (DOE/NNSA manager) remarks that the latest seismic studies show that earthquakes which might occur beneath the Pajarito Plateau could be so large as to exceed the design standards for LANL's PF4 (an existing plutonium facility) and that the PF4 building structure might experience multiple failures during such an earthquake. However, he asserts that even assuming a maximum release of plutonium (powder, or fumes from burning metal) into the atmosphere, the resulting biohazard would be 10,000 times less serious than current natural occurring biohazards. He also claims that planned upgrades to the facility will reduce future possible releases of plutonium to below levels specified as safe by the DOE.

Cook also claims that lessons learned from Cerro Grande wildfire helped to mitigate effects at LANL of the Las Conchas wildfire. Similarly, he expects that lessons learned from the Las Conchas wildfire will mitigate the effects of future disastrous wildfires at LANL; ditto [somehow] for the Fukushima Daiichi earthquake and flood.

LANL Dir. Charles McMillan talks about "the broad scope of what we have done at the Lab." He says that "safety is our highest priority at the Lab", and that "our goal is to encourage reporting safety issues before they become serious." He asserts that "one of the reasons that we are here today is because of the Lab's self-reporting of possible problems at PF4." He says that, however, "PF4 is so well-designed that, in the event of an earthquake he would feel safer in PF4 than in his own home."

Board Chair Winokur remarks that, in the event of earthquake inspired structural failures and fires at PF4, “the levels of radiation in and around the destroyed facility might rise to 100,000s of Rem.  It is doubtful that anyone could be safe under those circumstances.”

DNFSB LANL site-representative Brett Broderick points out that PF4 was designed and constructed in the 1970s using the best seismic info then available. However, in 2007 new seismic data showed that ground motions during a strong earthquake could be (1 1/2)x greater in the horizontal direction and 2x greater in the vertical direction, than previously thought. Projected radiation releases during such extreme events were shown to be 100x greater than had been thought possible earlier. He said that, nevertheless, approximately 1/2 of the revealed vulnerabilities at PF4 had already been corrected. Remaining vulnerabilities were primarily in the ventilation systems and in the fire suppression systems.

At this point, Board Chair Winokur notes that the US Atomic Energy Act required the DOE to protect the public against hazardous conditions at DOE nuclear weapons facilities. In this regard, he believed that DOE was designing its facilities so that worst case accidents would not result in radiation doses to members of the general public of greater than 25 Rem. However, recently, he has become aware that the DOE has actually been designing its faciities such that doses to individuals could be as high as 2500 Rem.

DOE/NNSA manager Cook immediately objects, saying that the "risk" to the general public is being appropriately computed by DOE as the product of the probability of an accident with the "consequence" of that accident.

Board member John Mansfield objects strenuously, saying that he does not believe that the DOE knows how to correctly calculate risk. [Evidently, a controversy has been brewing about this interesting topic between the Board and the DOE.]

Board Chair Winokur continues: "The risk to the public of an accident occurring once in 2000 yr, with radiation released corresponding to a dose of 2000 Rem is very different than the risk to the public of an accident which occurs once a year and leads to a dose of 1 Rem each time!"

[Now, I think it worthwhile to point out a few facts about radiation dose; i.e., according to experts who have studied the effects of radiation dose on the human body:

Normally, exposure to radiation from environmental sources results in an accumulated annual dose of less than 1 Rem, for each individual; such a low dose is always inconsequential. Also, doses accumulated gradually (over the course of a year, say) are always less problematic than doses accumulated all at once. Although sudden doses of less than 50 Rem usually do not lead to observable physical effects, sudden doses of ~ 100 Rem or more are often physically damaging, and doses of 1000 Rem or greater are usually fatal. The DOE sets 5 Rem as the maximum allowed annual dose for a worker in the nuclear weapons industry.]

[Although Winokur did not say so explicitly, it seems clear that although a release of 2000 Rem might be a rare event, any person would experience it as a deadly event, if it happened to occur in his life-time, or at the end of his life-time; but otherwise not! Which is to say that it is essential not to be confused by the rarity of an event when estimating the risk of that event to an individual.]

Panel member Kevin Smith (DOE/NNSA manager) remarks that the Las Conchas wildfire was very different than the Cerro Grande wildfire in that the more recent wildfire moved much more rapidly (explosively, in fact) and consumed much more of the forest (~10X more.)

Panel member Anderson (DOE/NNSA manager) said that the Las Conchas wildfire "was very scary" and that "if the wind hadn't shifted when it did, LANL might have been consumed by fire."

Board Chair Winokur asked Anderson if, during the Las Conchas wildfire, he had been worried about LANL's Area G; i.e., since Area G stores aboveground and essentially unprotected against the ravages of wildfire many [~10,000] large metal drums, each drum filled with TRU waste [~10 PE Ci per drum]. Anderson said that he had not been particularly worried about Area G.

Board member Joseph Bader asked about accidents so severe that they exceeded the "design basis" threat level. DOE/NNSA's Dr. Stanford answered that "such extreme events will be practiced during upcoming exercises."

Board Chair Winokur remarked that, if one tried to "imagine accidents at LANL beyond the design basis, a large earthquake accompanied by a wildfire would qualify, and did not seem to him to be far-fetched."

1 comment:

anothermotherforpeace said...

Interesting account. Are you aware of any recordings of the full meeting? I'd be interested in hearing more of the board's questions and the labs answers.