Waste management at Los Alamos’s PF-4 a continuing challenge

July 12, 2021, 9:30AMRadwaste Solutions
The Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Photo: LANL)

The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, which provides independent federal oversight of Department of Energy weapons facilities, has reported that low-level radioactive and other combustible waste is accumulating in the basement of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4), and that housekeeping and waste management in the PF-4 basement have been a continuing challenge.

In a June 18 inspection report, the DNFSB noted that the increased pace of work to support plutonium pit production has correspondingly increased the amount of waste generated at PF-4. The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which is required by Congress to have the capacity to produce 80 new plutonium pits per year by 2030, has been undertaking work to improve the equipment and capabilities of PF-4, including adding upgraded glove boxes.

LANL is expected to produce 30 plutonium pits each year, while the remaining 50 will be made at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The new pits are intended to replace the aging cores of nuclear weapons.

Questionable provenance: According to the DNFSB report, which was made public on July 9, a board inspector found numerous plastic bags filled with garbage accumulating in the PF-4 basement. “Of note, several undated plastic bags filled with cardboard-framed air filters have been staged for the past month,” the report states. “An informal marking on one bag notes that these filters have no waste acceptance form and are of questionable provenance. There is also no transient combustible permit associated with the bags.”

PF-4: LANL’s PF-4 is the only fully operational, full capability plutonium facility in the nation. Facing problems with its criticality safety program, however, lab officials temporarily paused some work at the facility in 2013. A review of Los Alamos’s safety program conducted that year by the DNFSB found that the program did not comply with DOE requirements or industry standards. The DNFSB review also identified criticality safety concerns “stemming from weaknesses in conduct of operations” at PF-4.

In June 2020, 15 workers at PF-4 were evaluated for Pu-238 exposure when a damaged glove box glove set off a continuous air monitor alarm. The glove was due to be replaced the following day, according to the Los Alamos Reporter.

Improvement plan: The DNFSB acknowledged that facility management does have a plan for improving housekeeping in PF-4’s basement. “On a positive note, during the last plant inventory, the amount of combustible waste in the basement was significantly lower than normally observed,” the DNFSB report said.

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