The Los Alamos National Laboratory, based in the desert of northern New Mexico, has reported multiple instances of environmental and safety hazards related to its experimentation with plutonium in its 75-year history.
The laboratory, since its establishment in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, has experienced at least 17 reported major incidents concerning safety and environmental protection. The University of California has been involved in the management of the lab, both directly and through an LLC, in which the UC partnered with engineering and technology corporations like Bechtel Corporation. The UC has maintained some management position since the lab’s inception and has confirmed its bid to continue managing it, despite the lab’s reported history of consistent mismanagement.
For a recent example, in the Department of Energy’s 2016 review of lab safety criteria, LANL was the only nuclear facility of 24 that did not meet expectations for nuclear criticality safety because of its excessive number of criticality safety infractions.
Nuclear criticality incidents are uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions that result in bursts of deadly radiation into the immediate area, and there have been several of these incidents involving plutonium at LANL.
Huan Huang, a UCLA physics professor and UCLA Nuclear Physics Group member, said although the levels reported in the DOE’s review are unlikely to be a direct danger to lab workers, the results indicate a red flag for LANL.
“The number of infractions does show that the lab has an attitude issue regarding the safety which is not consistent with the stated mission of and expectation for a national lab,” he added.
Many of the most dangerous accidents at LANL have involved plutonium in some capacity, said Greg Mello, the executive director of Los Alamos Study Group, a nonprofit organization that works for increased accountability and environmental protection from the nuclear facility in New Mexico.
“(LANL) had to suspend major plutonium operations for more than three years … due to a nonending series of nuclear criticality incidents,” he added.
Despite at least four reported dangerous incidents with plutonium, LANL pushed to become the country’s manufacturing plant for the plutonium cores of atom bombs, Mello said.
Plutonium is a radioactive element found in the uranium deposits used to develop nuclear weapons. Lab technicians must be careful when working with plutonium samples and keep them apart to avoid a potential nuclear chain reaction.
If the plutonium rods are placed too close together, there is the possibility of radiation exposure, which would be fatal to technicians. Mello said LANL has focused much of its research on plutonium cores, also referred to as “plutonium pits,” which are found in the center of nuclear weapons. This research has led to increased danger in the lab, he added.
In 2011, a supervisor found plutonium rods placed too close together and ordered a technician to separate them. Despite the potential danger of radiation exposure, a senior official kept technicians working rather than following the protocol of evacuating the room. Following the incident, many LANL engineers quit, citing an unsafe work environment.
However, LANL continues its work with plutonium.
The National Nuclear Security Administration announced May 11 that the production of plutonium pits will be split between LANL and the Savannah River Site, a separate nuclear production facility, in South Carolina.
LANL will produce at least 30 plutonium cores a year, while at least 50 will be produced in South Carolina. U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tim Udall, both representing New Mexico, pushed to keep plutonium pit production at LANL as it is a source of jobs and profit for the state.
Local organizations like the Los Alamos Study Group believe this would only be harmful to the local community and environment because the planned site for the new factory would have been in too seismic of a location, Mello said. He added the Los Alamos Study Group filed two lawsuits and a federal appeal to delay in the lab’s planning.
“We don’t want the U.S. to have a plutonium pit factory because we don’t want new weapons,” Mello said. “We can’t stop it everywhere but we can and have stopped it at LANL.”
The safety hazards with plutonium stems from LANL’s lack of clear management, said Jay Coghlan, the executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that promotes safer regulations and accountability at nuclear weapon facilities. He added he thinks the lab’s mismanagement issues stem from the lack of the federal government, the UC and corporate partners taking responsibility for the lab.
“The direct link between UC and LANL mismanagement is that UC is LANL’s manager, jointly with Bechtel,” Coghlan said. “The other corporate partners (BWX Technologies, Inc. and URS Energy and Construction, Inc.) are junior to UC and Bechtel.”
Mello said he thinks the UC’s secrecy and avoidance of responsibility has been a consistent part of its poor management of LANL. He added he thinks the UC purposefully keeps quiet about the extent of its powers over the lab to evade accountability for any incidents.
“Nothing that happens at LANL can happen without UC’s participation and blessing,” Mello said.
The lab’s current contract with the LLC, which includes the UC, expires this year and the UC has placed a bid to attain a management position. The UC is applying for the contract without Bechtel, likely because it wants to distance itself from the current history of mismanagement, Coghlan said. Other schools that have confirmed their bid in taking over the lab include the University of Texas and Texas A&M University.
Mello said he was surprised the UC wanted to continue its 75-year management of the laboratory given the problems it has faced in the past. However, he said the government funding and the income it earns through research may be the UC’s incentive to remain involved.
The potential for attaching its names to patents from research developments is likely another motivation for the UC, he added.
“UC has been very aggressive about patents in the past,” Mello said. “There is a sense that if you make one big patent, you can make a killing.”
The sense of prestige that comes from the association with one of the most famous nuclear facilities in the world may be another factor, he said.
“(LANL) receives more money for nuclear weapons than any place in the world,” Mello said. “Every year.”
While having its name associated with one of the most famous nuclear labs in the world might be attractive, Coghlan said he thinks being awarded the bid will not turn out well in the long run for the UC.
“It would be in UC’s best self-interest to maintain the relationship with the lab,” he added. “But it would (also) not be in its best interest.”
He said because the management of LANL has a reputation as being opaque and negligent, the name of the UC may be tainted if it were to remain involved.
“I think being central to an ongoing culture that promotes an indefinite presence of nuclear weapons and improving them, that’s unethical for core values of any university.” he added.
Stephanie Beechem, a spokesperson for the UC, said in a statement that given its experience managing three national laboratories, the UC is more than qualified to continue its leadership position at LANL. She added the safety and security for the lab’s operations and management is a top priority.
“We are confident that the university has the unmatched expertise that the lab needs to fulfill its mission in the years ahead,” she said.
However, Coghlan said given the history of the UC’s involvement in the lab’s avoidance of accountability, he is uncertain whether any promises made by the UC to improve environmental or public safety regulations will be kept.
“Put me down as a skeptic,” he added.