By Colin Demarest
Fifteen workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory might have been exposed to plutonium, a potentially grave mishap that some industry observers and critics say portends trouble for plutonium pit production, a separate cross-country nuclear weapons mission.
At least one lab worker received “significant contamination” on his hair, skin and protective clothing, according to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, following a June breach in a glovebox, a sealed piece of equipment used to handle dangerous or toxic substances.
“The room experienced significant” airborne radioactivity at the time and alarms triggered, inspectors with the independent board reported. A Los Alamos spokesperson on Wednesday said “laboratory employees responded promptly and appropriately, and cleared the room in a safe manner.”
The “serious” incident last month is a “tiny window into long standing problems here,” Greg Mello, with the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said in an interview with the Aiken Standard. It comes at a time, too, when the lab is maneuvering toward and preparing for jumpstarted plutonium pit production, the forging of nuclear weapon cores.
Federal law mandates the production of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 – a tight schedule, defense officials have acknowledged. While the Savannah River Site would produce 50 of those pits per year, according to a joint recommendation made by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018, Los Alamos would produce 30.
What recently transpired at Los Alamos “casts a long shadow” over the lab’s “pell-mell rush to acquire a huge plutonium production mission, namely pit production,” Mello said this week. Stephen Young, a Washington representative for the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, described the circumstances as “tricky, dangerous,” expensive and time consuming.
“This is yet another example of why the current pit production plan is doomed to failure,” Young said.
Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements on Wednesday similarly said the plutonium exposure is troubling – for both South Carolina and New Mexico.
“The rush by DOE to quickly expand plutonium pit production to SRS is fraught with risks and this accident serves as a red alert about those fast-tracked plans,” he said. “NNSA must immediately pause their overly ambitious pit production plans and fully review this troubling plutonium accident and its implications in environmental documents being prepared on pits at both SRS and Los Alamos.”
Los Alamos, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, has been recognized as a plutonium center of excellence. Plutonium-238, what was being handled June 8, is not used in nuclear weapons, as NASA has noted.
Pit production at the Savannah River Site, according to the 2018 recommendation, would mean repurposing the failed and incomplete Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.