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article imageLos Alamos Nuclear lab's ability to operate safely questioned

By Karen Graham     May 28, 2017 in Technology
Los Alamos - A fire broke out in mid-April in a building where plutonium cores of nuclear weapons are produced at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory in New Mexico, prompting an inquiry into the lab's ability to operate safely.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board announced Friday that it will hold a hearing on June 7 to discuss the future of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
It all started on a day in mid-April when three employees prepared to start cleaning the ground floor of the lab's plutonium building. PF-4. The employees were emptying unlabeled containers of legacy waste into a plastic bag that included radioactive and chemically contaminated material from Cold War-era weapons activities when a fire started.
The Los Alamos Laboratory and the New Mexico Environment Department assured news media and the public there were only minor injuries in the incident and the fire was quickly extinguished, reported the Associated Press.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
However, the Safety Board, an independent panel that advises the U.S. Department of Energy and the president, is questioning the lab's ability to continue to operate in a safe manner. In a report issued by the board, they say it is "questionable if the laboratory can continue to operate and safely handle the increasing quantities of plutonium in the coming years," according to Business Insider.
White House budget proposal plans for increase in plutonium pit production
The Department of Energy has already announced plans to increase the manufacturing of plutonium pits at Los Alamos. Two test pits were built last year and the DOE plans on adding as many as 50 to 80 plutonium pits each year up until 2030. This is a very significant ramping up of the presence and handling of highly radioactive plutonium.
What is a plutonium pit? The pit is the "critical" core of a nuclear weapon. To ensure that our stockpile of nuclear weapons is ready for detonation if needed, they regularly go through an inspection process where they are taken apart and each component is thoroughly inspected and tested.
And while most of the weapons are reassembled and returned to the stockpile, some of the inspections are so detailed and thorough that some of the plutonium pits and other components end up being destroyed. So, they need to be replaced. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) lost its ability to manufacture pits in 1992 after the Rocky Flats Plant closed.
In 2007, manufacturing of the plutonium pits was resumed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A limited number of pits were manufactured for the W88 warhead between 2007 and 2012. Now, with the DOE planning on making so many more plutonium pits, nuclear watchdogs have grown very uneasy.
The core of a nuclear warhead.
The core of a nuclear warhead.
"Fattening up our already bloated nuclear weapons stockpile is not going to improve our national security," said Jay Coghlan, the director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, in a news release issued Friday. "New Mexicans desperately need better-funded schools and health care, not expanded plutonium pit production that will cause more pollution and threaten our scarce water resources."
A lot of people will be able to voice their opinions at the June 7 hearing.
More about Los alamos, Safety issues, recent fire, trump budget, Plutonium
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