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Panel asks questions about plutonium risks at the Los Alamos laboratory

Many of the safety systems in place at the federal laboratory in New Mexico, where major parts of nuclear weapons have been developed dating back to the late 1970’s and will probably need to be adapted to future demand, an official with an independent oversight panel said Wednesday.

Sean Sullivan, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, made the comments at the start of an hour-long public hearing focused on the risks of plutonium work conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, started development last year of plutonium cores used to trigger the explosion in the nuclear weapons. The U.S. Department of Energy wants to invest in the production.

The plutonium facility has drawn the attention of the board of directors and other oversight agencies for the safety and problems with the aging of the building seismic stability and fire system.

The board of directors in a letter in January to Energy Department officials said that there are a significant number of remaining questions about the suitability of the facility for long-term activities. More concerns were raised in April after a fire in the concrete building resulted in minor injuries.

On Wednesday, the board of directors, members of staff mentioned the failure of diesel pumps that are part of the fire suppression system.

“A lot of the facility safety systems used to protect the public are of original vintage. They do not use modern technology and are prone to failure,” Sullivan said.

He recognised that the staff at the plutonium facility have identified deficiencies, but the resolution of the problems depends on uncertain federal funding and often have to be deferred.

Officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told the panel that Los Alamos has had a considerable upgrades in the last few years, including structural changes to protect against a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

Major construction projects directed at increasing the reliability and safety of plutonium operations at Los Alamos represents an investment of approximately $3 billion, said James McConnell, NNSA associate administrator for safety, infrastructure, and operations.

Over the past four years, an additional amount of $350 million is spent on maintenance and smaller projects to improve the safety and infrastructure. An additional $95 million will be spent in the coming year on the fire system, ventilation and other upgrades, the officials said.

“The safety and security of staff, our facilities, and the public remains our highest priority,” McConnell said.

Control of the operations at Los Alamos intensified in 2014, when a container of waste left over from decades of bomb-making was inappropriate packed in the lab and sent to the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository, where the later torn.

The resulting radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico forced closure for nearly three years and disrupted the federal government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup program. The incident led to policy and management overhaul and a costly settlement with the state.

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