BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory is conducting a fact finding to determine the cause of a water leak at Plutonium Facility (PF) 4 in Technical Area 55 that was discovered by workers July 19.
A Lab spokesperson told the Los Alamos Reporter in an email late Friday that water was discovered on the floor in one room adjacent to a pump room on the first floor of the facility, and a small amount of water in the basement.
“The water, which had low-level radiological contamination, was contained within the building. There was no risk to employees, public health and safety, or the environment. The majority of cleanup is complete, and the Laboratory is conducting a fact finding to determine the cause of the incident and will develop appropriate corrective actions,” the spokesperson said.
Lab staff were told that the employees who discovered the water took quick action to turn off the positive pressure system that generated the spill and that some 200 gallons of water overflowed from the system located in a nearby pump room. The internal announcement quoted David Eyler, associate Lab director for Weapons Production as stating that the appropriate notifications were quickly made about the incident and that not “no employees were exposed to contamination, and no contamination created a long-term impact”.
We have ongoing communication with NNSA and have met all reporting requirements.”
The internal announcement said cleanup efforts and subsequent assay, or testing, reflected low levels of radiological contamination in the rooms, which are in the process of being brought back to operation.
“The spill affected five rooms within the facility, and three of those have already been cleaned up and released for use, with the other rooms targeted for return to normal operations next week. No personnel came in contact with the water and it posed no risk to the environment or surrounding facilities,” the announcement said.
Eyler said in the announcement that a team was swiftly assembled to develop a plan to properly remove the water and get the rooms decontaminated, and that the decontamination efforts are “moving along as planned and successfully.”
The announcement stated that the execution of a chilled water system refilling process caused the inadvertent water overflow.
“The water from the tank went up a vent line and flowed down to a low point to a partially decommissioned glovebox before spilling on the floor. The affected systems are not ‘safety significant’, which means if they experience an issue, it does not pose any risk to worker safety,” the announcement explained.
It added that the Lab has initiated an aggressive fact-finding and a review of conduct of operations to ensure that operations will keep running smoothly in the future.
“Engineers are looking into whether the spring valve on the tank is functioning properly. In the coming weeks, they will examine other valves in PF-4 systems to ensure that they are working as they should. There was no risk of a criticality event at any time,” the announcement stated.
Finally, Eyler noted that the Lab is also reviewing operating procedures and the training of personnel and that updates will be made as necessary to prevent a reoccurrence in the future by using “this abnormal event as an opportunity to learn”.
PF-4 is a hazard category 2 nuclear facility constructed in the 1970s to support actinide chemistry research and development. According to a description by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, current missions at PF-4 include nuclear weapon pit manufacturing, pit surveillance, pit disposition, and manufacturing radioisotope power sources for space and defense applications. Radioactive material at PF-4 includes weapons grade plutonium, heat source plutonium, tritium, highly enriched uranium, and smaller quantities of other transuranic isotopes. Weapons grade and heat source plutonium in PF-4 exist in solid forms (metal or powder), molten metal, or in solution.