Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Public Comment by Suzanne Schwartz of Norteños for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures

Dear Editor:

The defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) held a public hearing in Santa Fe on November 16, with the goal of gathering information regarding legacy cleanup activities, nuclear safety, and increased production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The DNFSB is an independent organization within the executive branch of the US Government chartered with the responsibility of providing recommendations and advice to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy (DOE) defense nuclear facilities.

Although the Board does not have policy-making authority, it is an extremely important agency. Some of us remember the Trump administration’s failed efforts to eviscerate the Board. The public was invited to comment at the meeting or by submitting written comments. My comment to the board is as follows for anyone who may be interested.

Thank you!

 

November 16, 2022

Dear Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board:

I want to express my appreciation for the work the DNFSB conducts as the only independent agency with access to the United States National Laboratories. Thank you for conducting this hearing. I hope there will be more frequent hearings as Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) attempts to expand its plutonium missions.

As a United States citizen, and taxpaying member of the public, I am writing to express my concerns about the safety of ongoing and planned expansion of nuclear weapons activities at LANL.

These activities include multiple shift industrial-scale plutonium pit production, surplus plutonium disposition, and receipt and packaging of large amounts of heat source plutonium, all to take place at PF-4 (Plutonium Facility).

From time to time, newspapers publish articles about numerous kinds of safety breaches that are of concern, often well after the fact. Sometimes letters to the editor are published in local media on safety issues at the laboratory as well.

The New Mexico Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee meets at least annually for briefings on LANL activities. The most recent meeting was on Monday, November 14. The Committee heard testimony on many of the same concerns that have been recently voiced by the Safety Board, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), and from independent experts such as the Los Alamos Study Group.

In June 2022 the GAO issued the second of two reports citing improvements in safety and other areas and also outlining challenges that still remain since the new contractor, Triad LLC, took over operations back in 2018. The challenges that remain do not inspire confidence nearly four years into a ten-year contract. The GAO report states that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) cited numerous operational incidents, such as injuries and a flood in a nuclear facility, indicating that lessons learned from errors under the prior contractor have not been fully integrated into laboratory operations.

The report summary goes on to cite challenges Triad LLC is facing in attracting new staff and small businesses due to Los Alamos’s remote location and the “unique nature” of LANL’s work. The report summary also mentions LANL’s need to expand its workforce due to NNSA’s planned expansion of plutonium pit production and other operations at LANL.

On the workforce problem, LANL is partnering with Northern New Mexico universities, colleges, and high schools to build what it calls its “nuclear workforce pipeline.” According to the Glassdoor website, LANL currently has 965 job openings. It seems as if LANL is struggling to recruit the people it needs to build the infrastructure, work the gloveboxes, and handle the radioactive and toxic waste resulting from plutonium operations.

Additionally, in reading a number of employee reviews, both pro and con, written by current and former LANL employees from many different departments, I noticed numerous references to the remote location, various housing and commuting difficulties, and upper management problems. I feel it is very important to closely examine how these types of factors affect the safety of expanding plutonium operations at LANL at all levels, from construction to waste generation and handling.

As you know, the Safety Board wrote a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Granholm on August 11, 2022 that outlined its concerns about heat source plutonium operations and cited plans for triple missions operations at PF-4. This informative report is alarming and indicates how little we see reported in the news media.

An example I find particularly worrisome in your letter is that NNSA has, as far as a layperson can tell, downgraded plans for upgrading a ventilation system that seems a crucial component of fire prevention techniques, as described here: “NNSA has recently changed its strategy to upgrade the active confinement ventilation system to achieve a ‘robust’ system rather than a safety class, seismically qualified system, contrary to the Board’s advice.” (Emphasis added) The best possible ventilation system seems like it should be a no-brainer for NNSA in the interest of the workers, the public, and its national security missions.

Finally, I just discovered an October 20, 2022 letter from the Safety Board to Secretary Granholm informing her of several overdue reports and stating that DOE hasn’t consistently provided reports by the Board’s requested due date or even given written notice requesting additional time for reporting by the due dates, thereby affecting the Board’s safety oversight. Included in the list of overdue reporting are:

  • A report on analysis performed by LANL on Board Technical Report 44, Plutonium Facility Leak Pathway Factor Methodology, which was due on Sept. 12.
  • A written response on implementation of the un-reviewed safety question process following a probabilistic seismic hazard analysis update, originally due August 1, 2022 and extended by a DOE letter for 45 days on August 20, 2022. This is from a Board letter dated way back on June 16, 2022.

The letter concludes very reasonably: “The Board requires the requested information to determine whether further Board action is needed to fulfill its safety oversight mission.”

These kinds of delays that compromise the Safety Board’s assigned mission should not happen frequently, or at all, given the dangerous nature of all plutonium operations including cleanup of legacy waste and new waste resulting from expanding plutonium operations.

Factors such as these are extremely relevant to the safety of LANL workers, public health, the environment, and the national security mission, especially in light of the fact that LANL, in spite of the billions of our taxpayer dollars poured into it, has never maintained any kind of consistent production of plutonium pits over the decades since it was tasked with pit missions.

I hope DOE, NNSA, and LANL will clean up their act prior to embarking on the unbelievably dangerous missions of industrial-scale plutonium pit product, Surplus Plutonium Disposition, and receiving and repackaging heat source plutonium, all in the elderly and inadequate PF-4 building.

Again, I am very appreciative of the crucial work the Safety Board performs on behalf of the public and of LANL.

Sincerely,

Suzanne Schwartz
Norteños for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures
El Prado

https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-22-105412

https://ehss.energy.gov/deprep/2022/FB22G11B.PDF

https://www.dnfsb.gov/sites/default/files/document/26836/Outstanding%20DOE%20reporting%20requirements%20%5B2023-100-002%5D.pdf

https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-22-105412

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Again we are bombarded by a person who no matter what will send out a negative message purporting to be an expert on all aspects of LANL. As a lifelong native (85years) I am only looking at the positive side of expanded high paying jobs and with the action of repositioning 500 jobs to Santa Fe. This keeps our families close to home without sending our children out of state for work. I personally can testify that I have more relatives living in Colorado than in New Mexico because of the lack of jobs here 50 years ago no matter what their education level was. I don’t believe that this was or is an unusual phenomenon but was a need for survival. Until someone can bring in an alternative to LANL I believe that my criticism of outsiders trying to tell us that they know better than me I will change but until then stop with the criticism of LANL. I do not or ever have worked for LANL.

  2. but another example of citizen concerns landing on deaf ears like so many times in the past as there is just too much money and invested egos involved and in my opinion owned and operated by a captured agency who is supposed to oversee and provide transparency, much like so many of the agencies responsible for our health.

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