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Report: LANL work put on hold following violations

April 28, 2018 GMT

All work with special nuclear materials was put on hold at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium facility in March following two violations of safety requirements meant to prevent a nuclear chain reaction, according to a federal report released Friday.

The site, which handles some of the laboratory’s most sensitive nuclear missions — including production of plutonium pits, the grapefruit-sized plutonium metal shells used to trigger nuclear warheads — has been plagued for years with recurring safety issues.

According to reports publicly released Friday by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory panel that reports to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, officials at the facility ordered a review of all procedures within the division that oversees plutonium pits and called for all of the work involving fissile materials to pause from March 23 to March 29.

Seven operations within the plutonium facility remained stalled as of March 30, the date of the panel’s most recent report. It was unclear Friday if the work had resumed.

A spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory said he was unable to respond to questions about the status of the plutonium facility late Friday.

On March 1, a safety board report says, several samples of fissile material were placed inside a half shell of plutonium metal, which violates safety program guidelines. Workers were ordered to exit the facility until officials could ensure the area was safe, according to the March 9 report. A report dated March 23 says workers placed a plutonium pit inside a glove box — a confined space used to manipulate radioactive materials through attached gloves — that was not authorized to hold the material. Officials restricted the area and developed a recovery plan, the report says.

The stand-down at the plutonium facility comes as the lab is facing increased scrutiny. The National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to escalate production of plutonium pits and must decide where to launch the decades-long project. Los Alamos, which has produced plutonium pits on a small scale for decades, is vying with the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for government approval to develop up to 80 pits per year by 2030. This would require substantial infrastructure investment and federal funds.

A leaked document from a draft report comparing the facilities showed that production at Los Alamos could cost more and take longer to complete.

Safety issues have been a problem at Los Alamos for years, particularly at the plutonium facility, where problems led to a yearslong work pause that ended in late 2015.