Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ground Water Monitoring Wells at LANL

The Department Of Energy Office of the Inspector General recently issued a report about alterations made to the methodology in use at Los Alamos National Laboratory for installing characterization and monitoring wells. These wells, of which there are 32 in number, have been deemed necessary to determine the type and extent of groundwater contamination by detritus from the nuclear weapons program. (See IG Report No. INS-L-13-05, dated 9 July, 2013, available on the DOE's website.)

 The installation of characterization and monitoring wells into the regional aquifer underlying LANL has been a contentious topic for the past ~10 years. At issue has been the use of an apparently inappropriate technology for the drilling of these wells; specifically, the use of the mud rotary drilling method. It has now been admitted by LANL authorities that the use of drilling muds to facilitate the drilling process, a standard practice in some parts of the well-drilling industry, was probably misguided, since residual muds left in the well bore acted to obscure the presence of chemical and radioactive contaminants in the well water.

 This defeated the whole purpose of the characterization and monitoring well program, which was to detect the type and measure the extent of groundwater contamination by chemical toxins and radioactive poisons from the nuclear weapons program.

 The IG's report points out that LANL no longer uses the mud enhanced drilling methodology, having substituted air and/or drilling foam for mud. Meanwhile, wells that have been drilled with mud have been, to some extent and where possible, rehabiliated. Hence, the IG's report says that " ... steps had been taken to ensure that data derived from monitoring wells is more reliable."

 What the IG's report does not make clear is that a large fraction of the wells that are now in place at LANL have been drilled with mud, and that the rehabilitation of such wells is itself a fraught process.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Plutonium in the News

On June 27, 2013 the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles McMillan, announced to LANL staff that he was temporarily halting plutonium operations at PF-4. Evidently, this was in response to a report by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of the Inspector General, released to the public three days earlier, in which LANL's plutonium  operations were criticized as being unsafe. The DOE's report followed analyses by the Congressionally mandated Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) of the hazardous conditions at PF-4. And today, the DNFSB continues to bring these conditions to the attention of the new DOE Secretary Ernest J. Moniz.

Meanwhile, in spite of LANL's having signed an agreement with the State of New Mexico to make all of its environmentally relevant information available to the general public, none of this information about potential hazards at PF-4 can be found on LANL's website.

DOE - Office of the Inspector General (taken from DOE website):

AUDIT REPORT: OAS-M-13-04  / June 24, 2013 / Mitigation of Natural Disasters at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos) is at some risk of seismic events and susceptible to forest fires, including those started by lightning.  Since 2000, there have been two major forest fires that threatened Los Alamos.

Although Los Alamos had made progress in upgrading existing nuclear facilities, concerns remained regarding the mitigation of risks related to natural disasters.  Specifically, we found seismic issues affecting the Plutonium Facility that remain to be addressed.  Additionally, we found that fire protection and prevention vulnerabilities in Area G Waste Storage and Disposal Facility (Area G) continue to exist.  Further, we found that several known risks exist with compensatory measures implemented in Area G that may lessen their efficacy in mitigating natural disasters.  Los Alamos' processes and procedures have not always been fully effective in ensuring that hazards, including natural disasters, are fully analyzed and effectively mitigated.

National Nuclear Security Administration officials responsible for overseeing Los Alamos pointed out that decisions to budget and schedule mitigation measures are based on factors including the probability of an event occurring, such as a seismic event, and whether a structure is considered to be a permanent or limited life facility.  While a number of compensatory and corrective actions have been completed, in our view, further actions are needed to mitigate existing vulnerabilities.  Management concurred with the report's recommendations and indicated that corrective actions have been or would be initiated to mitigate potential risks.

July 15, 2013

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) writes to the new Department Of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest J. Moniz:

The staff of DNFSB performed a review of the Criticality Safety Program at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in May 2013. This review indicated significant non-compliances with applicable DOE requirements and industry standards ... . In addition, this review identified criticality safety concerns stemming from weaknesses in the conduct of operations at the Plutonium Facility. The Board notes that some of these deficiencies are long standing and indicate flaws in the federal oversight and contractor assurance systems.

The Board is aware that the Laboratory Director paused programmatic activities in the Plutonium Facility on June 27, 2013. ... the Board requests a report and briefing by the National Nuclear Security Administration ... that details a) any corrective actions NNSA is taking to incorporate criticality safety controls into procedures, ..., b) any root causes NNSA has identified for recent criticality safety infractions, and c) any improvements NNSA has determined are needed to the federal oversight and contractor assurance systems relative to criticality safety, conduct of operations, and effectiveness of corrective actions.

July 17, 2013

DNFSB writes again to DOE Secretary Ernest J. Moniz:

The DNFSB is responding to former DOE Secretary Chu's March 27, 2013 letter assessing public and worker protection for a seismic collapse scenario at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Plutonium Facility (PF-4). In that letter, Sec. Chu concluded that PF-4 can continue to operate safely, provide its confinement safety function, and meet the DOE's quantitative safety objectives ... .

The Board does not agree with the methodology used by the LANL contractor for the seismic analysis upon which Sec. Chu based his conclusions. Consequently, the Board does not agree with the NNSA's conclusion that these modeling results demonstrate compliance with DOE standards for confinement integrity following a design basis earthquake. ... .