A Major Quake Could Release Plutonium From Los Alamos Lab

By Brett Israel | October 28, 2009 2:20 pm

los-alamos-webFederal 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 boxesa 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 radiationpotentially many thousands of times greater than a chest X-raythat 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.

Related Content:
80beats: What Dangers Lurk in WWII-Era Nuclear Dumps?
80beats: Major Earthquakes Can Weaken Faults Across the Globe
80beats: Geothermal Energy Project May Have Caused an Earthquake

Image: Los Alamos National Laboratory

  • Barney

    And people say Iran can’t be trusted with nuclear technology….

  • ed kaunelis

    Now we have one more thing to worry about. Ignorance is bliss?????

  • Smell my finger

    On top of a fault line!

    “a rupture..could be more damaging than previously thought” How minimal did they think damage would be on a fault line? Was it the same maroons that built the dykes around New Orleans?

  • Not to worry

    The defense board is notorious for trumping up crises. You have to realize that all of this is based on probabilities of a high magnitude earthquake occurring. The probability is extremely small. Try once every few thousand years and even that is based on nothing but a guess from geologists. Remember geologists were the guys that refused to believe in plate tectonics until the 1960’s. You are much more likely to die on your way to work or school than from any type of plutonium accident at Los Alamos. Let’s look at it another way. If you’re going to get upset about fault lines then why don’t we consider the fact that the whole western United States is vulnerable to destruction by the vast Yellowstone volcano? The last time it blew was 600,000 years ago with a frequency of 600,000 years. It’s due! Last time it went it dumped ash to a depth of 60 feet in MISSOURI! What are we doing about this imminent threat? Nothing. Remember there are lies, damn lies, and statistics and behind all of it are some lavishly inept government bureaucrats trying to justify their existence.

  • Peter

    And thats the difference between pie and cake!

  • I wouldn’t worry either

    Remember that “a fault beneath the lab” might reside anywhere in the 10 square miles covered by the lab. The referenced facility is NOT built ON a fault –but close enough that they have some concern. I think that ultimately, you will find that the risk is overestimated, as suggested by the previous poster. I am betting you won’t see an article describing the complete analysis and actual (infinitesimal) risk. I’ll give you a suggestion for minimizing your risk — don’t drive anywhere. Humans are incredibly bad at REAL risk analysis.

  • Brian Too

    I sure don’t think of New Mexico as being a major quake zone. California is on the ring of fire and is at high risk, but New Mexico? They are well inside the continental plate and should be pretty stable geologically. Although I have heard of interior plate faults somewhere–supposedly they produce rare but high magnitude quakes. I don’t understand the mechanism at all.

    Anyhow they identified a risk and mitigating steps were taken. It doesn’t make me feel good that LANL is on a fault line but you measure the risks and make your choices.

  • Lorin Thwaits

    Anyone remember the Mother’s Day fire in ’69 at Rocky Flats?


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