Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Questions Safety of LANL's TA-18

* The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recently released two reports questioning the safety of Technical Area (TA) 18 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The board outlined a number of issues that may compromise safety at TA-18, including lack of operational oversight and plans by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to accelerate relocation of materials from TA-18 to the Nevada Test Site.

TA-18 houses three laboratory buildings and five nuclear reactors. The reactors are used to experiment with nuclear fission for research and training. TA-18 is located in the bottom of Pajarito Canyon three miles from the community of White Rock. It has been widely criticized for its vulnerability to terrorist intrusion and theft of nuclear materials. According to some estimates, one ton of weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium are stored at TA-18.

Because of these security concerns, materials at TA-18 have been slated for relocation to the Nevada Test Site for several years. However, in early May, Spencer Abraham, Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), announced that relocation would be accelerated due to security reviews following the September 11th terrorist attacks. DOE said that they will begin moving half of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium stored at TA-18 by September 2004.

In conjunction with Abraham's announcement, the board, which is an independent agency established by Congress in 1988, issued the reports that detail safety threats at TA-18 unrelated to terrorism. The board estimates that an uncontrolled reaction in one of TA-18's reactors would constitute the threat with the second highest consequences at LANL.

The board estimates that such an event would release lethal doses of radiation to an individual located off-site. The board also states that such an event could be initiated by a sequence of operator errors due to incorrect analysis, procedures or failure to follow procedures. The board argues that many of the controls established by LANL to prevent such an accident have not been verified by the board and must be reviewed. The board also stated, "[We remain] concerned about the capabilities of [DOE] to continue to train and qualify criticality safety engineers and to conduct criticality experiments...."

LANL argues that TA-18 has been operating safely for more than 40 years. In a statement, LANL responded to the board, saying, "LANL is aware of the [board's] most recent concerns and is working with [DOE's] local site office ... to be sure we satisfy the board."

Activists argue that experiments at TA-18 should be halted until LANL can address the board's concerns.

The board's concerns come amidst claims that LANL has again misplaced computer technology containing sensitive weapons information. On May 20, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reported the security breach. LANL claims that the missing technology does not constitute a national security threat. LANL says that they are attempting to mitigate such security breaches. However, Danielle Brian, of POGO, says that DOE and its contractors have "a long history of stonewalling security reforms."

Back to News Index