Concerns raised on reactors

By: James W. Brosnan / (202) 408-2701
Albuquerque Tribune
May 27, 2004 Thursday

WASHINGTON -- An Energy Department panel is raising new concerns about the safety of five test reactors used at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said several issues "need to be addressed in the near term to ensure continued safe operations" at the Technical Area 18 Critical Experiments Facility even before those reactors are relocated to a more remote Nevada facility.

In most areas of the lab, it would take a catastrophic event to trigger a nuclear accident. But at TA-18, a sequence of human operator errors could lead to "partial vaporization of a plutonium or sample," said the board. Only administrative controls and "interim compensatory measures" are preventing such an accident, said the board.

The nearest lab boundary is one-half mile from TA-18, and the town of White Rock is three miles away.

In response, lab spokesman Nancy Ambrosiano said the TA-18 reactors are "operating safely, thanks to extensive engineering and administrative safety controls."

She said the lab is working to satisfy the board's safety concerns, but the safety board said the lab's selection of engineered controls to shut down an overheating reactor "are not compelling."

The safety board also said that reports of the lab's Reactor Safety Committee over the last three years "have tended to focus more on advocating for continued operations . . . than on independently identifying safety issues."

In March, the Energy Department announced that half the nuclear material from TA-18 would be moved to the department's Nevada Test Site beginning in September. But it has not set a timetable for removal of all the material. The safety board noted that the current plan is to shut three of the five reactors and operate the two others "in the near term."

The safety board's report should put added pressure on the department to relocate TA-18, said Pete Stockton, a former Clinton administration Energy Department official who now works with Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that monitors government spending and makes extensive use of whistleblowers in the civil service.