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Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report on TA-18 (March 21, 2004)(.pdf)

Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Questions Safety of LANL's TA-18 (May 26, 2004)

Lab Unit Keys Missing for 16 Hours (June 25, 2004)

Calendar of Upcoming Events

This campaign is a part of the national BE SAFE Nuclear Weapons Days of Action, sponsored by the Center for Health and Environmental Justice.

The BE SAFE Blueprint for Action


Creative Commotion

Nuclear Watch of New Mexico

Peace Action New Mexico

Clean Up, Don't Build Up!
No More Harm from Nuclear Weapons

Join CCNS, Creative Commotion, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and Peace Action New Mexico in urging our decisionmakers to order the Department of Energy to cease operations at LANL's nuclear reactors until they can be guaranteed to be safe and secure.

In May 2004 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board transmitted to the Department of Energy two reports outlining the potentially severe risks of conducting "criticality" experiments at Technical Area (TA) of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The Safety Board is an independent agency chartered by Congress to oversee safety issues at DOE's nuclear facilities, but has no regulatory power. Criticality experiments are "assemblies" of enriched uranium and/or plutonium to create self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions. These assemblies differ from nuclear reactors in that the nuclear reactor is not sustained (assuming there are no accidents). Another significant difference is that the critical assemblies have no containment or shielding.

TA-18 has long been a troubled site because of its longstanding safety and security concerns. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency with DOE, is planning to relocate three of TA-18's five critical assemblies to the Nevada Test Site by September 2004. However, the process has already been long delayed. According to the Safety Board, two remaining critical assemblies "will continue to operate for the near term at TA-18 in campaign mode." The Safety Board identified unresolved safety issues and concluded that in an accident one of the assemblies could produce nearly a 700 rem offsite dose (500 rem is usually fatal). The Safety Board also noted that federal oversight for these experiments has been "minimal," implying that LANL is pretty much free to do as it chooses. These criticality experiments should not proceed until all safety issues are fully resolved and so verified by the Safety Board. Senators Domenici and Bingaman, Representative Udall and Governor Richardson should act forcefully in this issue to help protect New Mexicans.

A Safety and Security History of TA-18

  • 1945-1946: Two scientists die from acute radiation poisoning in two primitive criticality experiments (not at TA-18). Since then the experiments have been conducted remotely.

  • 1948: TA-18 operations begin, intentiaonlly located at the bottom of Pajarito Canyon so that the 200-foot canyon walls can provide some natural radiation shielding. This also inherently means that TA-18 sits in a flood plain, not a good idea given its large inventories of highly enriched uranium and plutonium (now estimated at three tons).

  • Early 1980s: The congressional House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations examined DOE security issues. Chairman John Dingell concluded "the safeguards at the most critical facilities, which include Los Alamos, were in shambles while, at the same time, DOE's Office of Safeguards and Security was giving the facilities a clean bill of health."

  • 1996: DOE listed TA-18 as one of the ten most vulnerable sites in the country for the storage of highly enriched uranium.

  • 1997: TA-18 failed a security exercise in which Army Special Forces acted as mock terrorists, "killed" most of the security guards, and "stole" enough nuclear materials to make a bomb after pretending to load them onto a K-Mart garden cart.

  • 1998: A motor spontaneously kicked into high gear during a criticality experiment, moving two piles of highly enriched uranium together. A technician was able to turn the machine off before criticality was reached. While completing its annual survey, the DOE Albuquerque Operations Office found TA-18 security "unsatisfactory." But the time senior management approved the survey, the "unsatisfactory" was turned into "satisfactory" without any real improvements in security.

  • 2000: DOE Secretary Bill Richardson, now Governor Bill Richardson, ordered TA-18 to be shut down and nuclear materials to be moved out by 2004. The Cerro Grande fire burned approximately 7,000 acres of LANL property, increasing the threat of flood. DOE's nuclear safety division fined LANL $41,250 for breaking safety rules for TA-18 criticality experiments. Since LANL's manager, the University of California, is a "nonprofit," it didn't pay. TA-18 failed another security exercise when "terrorists" gained access to materials from which they could fashion a crude bomb.

  • 2001: Safety requirements are violated at three different critical assemblies. Because LANL self-reported these violations, DOE took no enforcement action. A technician received a 200 rem dose, equal to 40 chest x-rays.

  • 2002: An erratic electric motor suddenly kicked into gear, moving two piles of special nuclear materials together. Fortunately, enough material had been previously removed so that criticality was avoided. TA-18 failed another mock terrorist attack.

  • September 2003: Due to all of the security and safety concerns, DOE made a formal decision to move TA-18's estaimted three tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium to the Nevada Test Site. Following that, LANL's estimate for the move tripled, leading critics to charge that LANL was intentionally sabotaging the move.

  • November 2003: A Vanity Fair article reported that the DOE nuclear safety officer at LANL rejected as a final safety measure a scientist's offer to drive a bulldozer into a critical assembly if it ever went out of control.

  • May 2004: DOE announced new security initiatives, which include moving TA-18's special nuclear materials to the Nevada Test Site. A few weeks later, the Safety Board released its reports on criticality experiments at TA-18 (see highlights below). DOE has still not released a formal decision to relocate TA-18šs criticality experiments.

  • June 2004: Security keys to sensitive facilities at TA-18 went missing for 16 hours.

Highlight of the May 2004 Safety Board Reports

  • "Postulated accidents. TA-18 is located one half-mile from the nearest site boundary and three miles from the community of White Rock. The [LANL] buildings containing the critical assemblies offer no confinement in the event of an accident with a radiological release.... The highest-consequence accidents postulated for [LANL's] other nuclear facilities are initiated by catastrophic events, such as an earthquake or full facility fire. The comparable postulated accident at TA-18 might be initiated by a series of operator errors, due to incorrect analyses, incorrect procedures or failure to follow procedures that would result in an assembly with too much fissile material being assembled in an uncontrolled manner. It appears credible to drive these assemblies into a temperature regime that could melt plutonium."

  • "Documented Safety Analysis. The accident analysis for SHEBA [ one of the remaining critical assemblies] indicates that the offsite consequences for an accident ... can reach nearly 700 rem cumulative effective dose equivalent; essentially all of this amount is from vaporization of the [plutonium] sample.˛

  • "Operational Oversight by NNSA and LANL. Recent federal oversight in TA-18 has been minimal.... Support of LANL's senior management for [the Reactor Safety Committee] has been marginal at best. In 2000, most of the committee members resigned.... Committee reports during the last three years have tended to focus more on advocating for continued operations (e.g., mission relocation impacts) than on independently safety issues and verifying adequacy of their resolution."

  • Conclusions. " [A] sequence of operator errors at TA-18 could initiate its worst accident - an uncontrolled reactivity excursion resulting melting and partial vaporization of a plutonium core sample.... NNSA and LANL are currently relying on a set of administrative controls and interim compensatory measures to prevent this accident.... However, most of these controls are missing from the current list of those to be verified in response to the Board's Recommendation. It appears that these controls ought to be included and to have priority for verification."

Jay Coghlan, June 2004
Modified by Amy Williams, July 2004