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Tuesday, February 01, 2005  
Safety concerns halt plutonium work

By: Betsy Mason

Potential safety problems prompted a stop of work with plutonium at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory after a federal nuclear agency found taped-up cracks in the ventilation system and "hot boxes" without adequate seismic restraints.

Bruce Goodwin, the lab's head of defense and nuclear technology, said the stoppage is not due to existing or imminent safety breaches but to give lab experts a chance to develop a plan to update the plutonium facility's physical management plan.

All employees at the lab's plutonium facility are still reporting for work, but the stop of hands-on work with plutonium is expected to last several weeks.

"We are not unsafe today, but we need to be in a place where we can project safety into the indefinite future," said Goodwin.

In October, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board found problems with the ventilation system and glove boxes used to handle plutonium without exposure during a routine visit to the plutonium facility, known as "Superblock." The independent board reports to the president and energy secretary on health and safety issues at nuclear facilities.

In November, the board wrote to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham expressing concern about the lack of an adequate "configuration management program" to oversee the 16 safety systems designed to protect the public and workers from exposure to plutonium. The letter gave the Energy Department 60 days to report back.

On Jan. 4, the DOE's National Nuclear Safety Administration issued a report concluding the configuration management program for Superblock is inadequate, ineffective and its application to "the vital safety systems is also not complete and vulnerabilities exist."

The DOE previously did a broader audit of the facility that uncovered similar issues.

"We do not feel that the facility was ever in danger of being unsafe," said John Belluardo, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Safety Administration. "However, we are concerned that processes and procedures are not current."

Goodwin said hands-on work with plutonium was halted to give engineers, supervisors and technical experts who normally oversee the work a chance to design a plan to revamp Superblock maintenance and security procedures. The actual work will take several years.

"We've been wanting to do this for a long time but didn't have the resources," said Goodwin. He hopes the attention the problem is getting from several federal agencies will change that.

The problem with the taped ducts has been fixed, said Goodwin, and the facility already has an extensive program to replace aging ducts. The problem is in the way these and other safety issues are recorded and kept track of.

"It's not enough to be safe. You have to write down that you are safe so there is a recorded history," he said.

Marylia Kelley, head of the local nuclear watchdog group Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, said these problems "might be just the tip of the iceberg because Livermore Lab literally doesn't have a handle on its safety systems."

This stand-down is not the first for Superblock. In 1995, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board found safety problems that prompted a voluntary six-month shutdown. In 1997, lab workers reported safety violations involving too much plutonium in individual glove boxes. In 2003, an electrical outage caused plutonium to leak out of a glove box and expose a dozen workers.

Safety is a good reason to reduce the amount of plutonium there, Kelley said.

Goodwin says he would also like to see the amount of plutonium reduced. "We have way more material than we need. We'd love to get it off the site, but we have to find a safe repository for it," he said.

A 10-year environmental plan for the lab, proposed last year, would allow the amount of plutonium stored at the lab to be doubled, allowing up to 3,300 pounds at any one time.

In May, Secretary Abraham cited security concerns and called for a study of possible relocation of some nuclear materials at the lab. That report has not been released.

Kelley said she will follow up on the report with new Energy Secretary Sam Bodman.

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