Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s Superblock is home to its Plutonium Facility, which is a couple of hundred yards from the fence line and is visible from nearby homes. Recently the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent federal agency with oversight authority of nuclear facilities at Livermore Lab, completed a review of the continuous air monitors that are being upgraded and replaced at the Lab’s Plutonium Facilities. DNFSB was concerned enough about the implementation of the safety equipment that they drafted a letter notifying National Nuclear Security Administration’s Administrator Jill Hruby of the problems and of their recommendations.

The DNFSB review came on the heels of a separate report released last year by the Department of Energy’s Office own of Enterprise Assessments entitled Independent Assessment of the Management of Safety Issues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which similarly identified broader safety implementation issues at Livermore Lab’s nuclear facilities in their assessment. In fact, their report points to safety implementation problems dating back to 2011!

The problems identified by the recent DNFSB letter are specifically about the currently ongoing replacement and upgrades being performed to the Continuous Air Monitoring (CAM) system at the Plutonium Facility that monitors for airborne releases of radioactivity that may be inhaled by personnel, limiting potential exposure to alpha and beta contamination leakage from gloveboxes. These upgrades include modifications to both the CAM hardware and software.

The lab exempted the software upgrades from going through official Quality Assurance Processes. The DNFSB identified that this was an improperly applied exemption. The Lab went to great lengths to justify the exemption, however, one wonders why skipping the quality assurance processes that are designed to ensure proper operation of safety equipment in a facility working with significant quantities of highly radioactive Plutonium near a population center is justifiable.

The DNFSB pointed to the DOE’s OEA assessment that similarly found problems implementing quality assurance processes with software implementation in the past.  That report goes on to state that, “Since 2011, LLNS has not adequately invoked nearly all of the elements for quality assurance programs required by DOE to ensure nuclear safety and the timely identification and resolution of nuclear safety issues…. Until the concerns identified in this report are addressed… significant uncertainties will exist regarding the impacts of quality assurance weaknesses on the safety  of ongoing operations of LLNL nuclear facilities.” Despite these criticisms, only months after release of that report from their governing agency, the Lab decided to skip quality assurance processes again.

Safety of operations at Livermore Lab’s nuclear facility is of utmost importance to Tri-Valley CAREs, our members, and the community living around the Lab. Thankfully the DNFSB has identified these inadequacies, though it is alarming that the DOE OEA has identified similar problems dating back to 2011 without resolution. We will be following up with the DNFSB and the DOE to find out what the next steps will be.

These safety problems are especially concerning given the ongoing ramp up of work in the nuclear facilities to support the new warhead development being done at the Lab, specifically on the W87-1 warhead for the new Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, which is hugely over budget and delayed. Stay tuned for more on that…

Click here to see the DNFSB letter to NNSA Administrator Hruby about the Continuous Air Monitors.

Click here to see the DOE Office of Enterprise Assessments entitled Independent Assessment of the Management of Safety Issues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory