At a Nov. 17 meeting in Santa Fe, members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board chided LANL brass for failing to mitigate risks created by two of its facilities, the PF4 plutonium facility and the Area G material disposal area.
The high estimated radiation dose for Area G is partly due to the volume of radioactive material stored there: approximately 10.8 million cubic feet of waste.
But at the meeting, NNSA Defense Programs Deputy Administrator Don Cook said upgrading facilities to decrease possible radiation doses isn’t the agency’s only priority at LANL, adding, “I can’t make a commitment to what Congress will appropriate.”
While recognizing the limitations of the DNFSB’s power over LANL, the board members expressed frustration with LANL’s failure to comply with the 25-rem recommendation, as well as the lab’s attitude toward the problem.
In the hypothetical scenario of an airplane crashing into the domes at Area G, where radioactive waste is stored in metal drums and other containers, a person standing outside lab property could be exposed to a whopping 1,795 rems, usually from inhalation of radioactive particles.
That high dose is actually the estimated exposure to a person over a 50-year lifespan, Kim Kearfott, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan, explains.
Kearfott says. “The bad news is that person would be radioactive for a long time…the reality is, if you inhale plutonium, it’s exposing you every year for the rest of your life.”
“Twenty-five rems is a fairly high number,” nuclear engineer John Till says. Till is the president of Risk Assessment Corporation, a private company that, like the DNFSB, estimates radiation exposure doses to the public caused by radioactive materials.
LANL has more facilities that exceed the 25 rem guideline than any other NNSA site, DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur said at the meeting. One facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina also exceeds radiation dose guidelines under some hypothetical accident scenarios.
LANL Director for Business and Operations Carl Beard said he felt the lab’s operations are “safer now than they’ve ever been,” adding that the safety goals of LANL and the DNFSB are “very well aligned, although we do discuss semantics and issues.”
“You’re your own regulator, so you’re the ones determining when these facilities are safe to operate,” Mansfield told LANL and NNSA representatives. “We’re just trying to understand your interpretation of this nuclear safety management rule.”
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