Federal experts believe that a major earthquake could trigger fires at Los Alamos National Laboratory, releasing radioactive materials and endangering lives. The rupture of a seismic fault that runs underneath the lab would shake the ground more than scientists previously thought, according to a new report (PDF). A natural disaster here would be bad news, since the lab, just west of Santa Fe, is the main plutonium factory in the United States, believed to hold thousands of pounds of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons (the actual amount is classified).
Researchers study plutonium inside glove boxes—a Hollywood movie staple, consisting of a sealed enclosure with gloves so that someone outside the box can work on dangerous materials inside. A major earthquake would shake the ground enough to topple the glove boxes, says the new study. Some glove boxes are enormous and even contain furnaces to cast and mold plutonium. If one of these were to crash, the resulting fire would be uncontrollable and would create a vaporized plutonium cloud that could drift outside of the lab, says the safety report. In a worst-case scenario, a fire could release so much airborne plutonium that a person on the boundary of the lab would get a dose of radiation—potentially many thousands of times greater than a chest X-ray—that could be fatal in weeks, according to individuals knowledgeable about the study [Los Angeles Times].
The amount of vaporized plutonium could potentially be as much as 100 times more than the level allowed by the Department of Energy. Los Alamos responded to the report by saying they have taken many actions in the past year to increase fire safety including repacking plutonium into containers that would survive the accident. The lab also installed ventilation filters that perform at higher temperatures, improved the fire suppression system, implemented new controls for combustibles, added fire extinguishers to critical areas and developed plans to support firefighter response [AP].
The warning was delivered by Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an auditing agency that oversees federal nuclear programs; the board urged Energy Secretary Stephen Chu to act quickly to improve safety at Los Alamos. The laboratory will present a formal response to the report later this week.
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