A federal nuclear review panel still has some safety concerns about Los Alamos National Laboratory’s new multimillion-dollar storage facility for radioactive waste.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in a recent report that more reviews will be needed as operations ramp up but that limits placed on the amount of material and the types of containers allowed at the facility will provide adequate protection of public health and safety at least for the near term.
The board noted in the report made public last week that eliminating or downgrading safety protocols at the lab’s Transuranic Waste Facility “could result in a potential exposure” to the public or workers.
The buildings that make up the $97.5 million facility were completed in early 2017 after several years of construction. Officials said the project came in under budget and they consider the report as positive.
The facility was designed to store and prepare for shipping newly generated waste from nuclear weapons research as a means of meeting state-mandated cleanup requirements. The waste includes tools, clothing, gloves and other items that have come in contact with radioactive elements such as plutonium.
The northern New Mexico lab was the birthplace of the atomic bomb and is still one of the nation’s premier research facilities.
It has made headlines recently because of a string of safety lapses that include the mistaken shipping of radioactive material aboard a commercial cargo plane and the storage of too much plutonium in one location.
The latest instances follow one of the more costly mishaps for the nation’s nuclear complex: A 2014 radiation release caused by the inappropriately packing of waste at Los Alamos that forced a nearly three-year closure of the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also has uncovered other problems at the lab, but Los Alamos managers said they have been making changes to address the systemic issues and believe the safety plans for the new waste facility are adequate.
The multibillion-dollar contract with Los Alamos National Security LLC to manage the lab expires in 2018. Federal officials announced in late 2015 that it would not be renewed because of missed performance goals.
The company’s partners include the University of California and Bechtel National Inc. Both have expressed interest in bidding for the new contract along with dozens of others.
The safety board looked at various scenarios in determining the adequacy of the waste facility’s safety protocols. They included an accidental puncturing of a waste drum by a fork lift and whether workers could evacuate in time. Also examined were the possible effects of strong winds on the storage buildings and large fires inside the structures.
The board estimates it would take about 800 pounds of combustible material to fuel a fire with enough intensity to damage the structural integrity of the buildings. Current rules allow for only a fraction of that material to be stored inside.
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