Tag Archives: National Nuclear Security Administration

Mishandling Nuclear Materials: who is to blame

Plutonium in can.

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times from 2012 to 2107 according to government documents.While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or – in the worst cases – after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.  Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.

In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory – a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico – admitted five weeks ago that in June 2017  it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes, instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident… According to the initial explanation Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23, 2017 the lab used air transport because one of the other labs – located in Livermore, California ― needed the plutonium urgently.

The incident – which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos ― drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons work. It provoked the Energy Department to order a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.

In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials, Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 1, 2017

See also the Nuclear Weapons Establishment, Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

The Y-12: nuclear weapons alive and well

Nearly three weeks after a stunning security breach shut down the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the government on Wednesday (Aug. 15, 2012) authorized the restart of nuclear operations…..

B&W Y-12, the managing contractor, ordered a “security stand-down” on Aug. 1, 2012 soon after the unprecedented intrusion July 28 by three Plowshares protesters, who reportedly scaled a ridge on the north side of Y-12 and walked all the way to the plant’s high-security inner core. The protesters …. used bolt-cutters to pass through a series of sensor-laden security fences and reach the fortresslike uranium storehouse, which they defaced with spray-painted protest messages and human blood. The breach raised deep questions about site vulnerabilities and prompted multiple investigations, which are still under way.The approval to restart nuclear operations has no bearing on the “show cause” notice that the National Nuclear Security Administration sent to B&W Y-12 last week, Wyatt said.

In the Aug. 10, 2015 letter to the contractor, the NNSA said security concerns raised by the break-in and the response to it were so severe as to potentially harm the ability to carry out the Y-12 contract. ….It wasn’t clear how long it would take Y-12 to get the uranium operations and other activities, including the dismantlement of old warhead parts, up and running or restart manufacturing programs.  In its “show cause” letter to B&W, the NNSA said a “high number” of cameras associated with the plant’s PIDAS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System) were inoperable at the time of the July 28, 2012intrusion in the predawn hours. ”

Excepts from   Frank Munge, Feds authorize restart of Y-12’s nuke operations,
Knoxville News Sentinel, Aug. 15, 2012

Nuclear Power Alive with Assured Fuel Supply

As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthen global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today announced the availability of a reserve stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use as commercial nuclear power fuel. The stockpile was derived from down-blending surplus highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the U.S. stockpile.

This new American Assured Fuel Supply (AFS) creates a vehicle for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy without exacerbating nuclear proliferation risks. Through this plan, the U.S. is able to encourage wider use of nuclear power production at the same time as it meets U.S. nuclear disarmament obligations.

The AFS sets aside LEU down-blended from surplus U.S. weapons HEU to serve as a backup fuel supply for foreign or domestic reactors in the event of a supply disruption. Along with the International Fuel Bank to be administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the AFS gives nation states that are looking to nuclear power as a clean energy source an assured supply of LEU, decreasing the need to develop costly enrichment technology. Establishing this reserve will put confidence in the U.S. as a reliable supplier of nuclear fuel and should encourage other governments to see American nuclear vendors as preferable partners.

“As more countries look to nuclear power as a low-carbon option for addressing growing energy demands, assuring a fuel supply without promoting proliferation sensitive technologies is a critical national security priority,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “In addition to protecting fuel supplies for commercial power producers, the Assured Fuel Supply helps demonstrate our commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by eliminating surplus weapons uranium in a way that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”

In 2005, the Department of Energy announced that the U.S. would set aside 17.4 metric tons of surplus HEU to be blended-down to LEU and held in reserve to deal with disruptions in the nuclear fuel supply. The down-blending of the 17.4 metric tons of surplus HEU is scheduled for completion in 2012. When complete, it will result in approximately 290 metric tons of LEU, of which approximately 230 metric tons will form the reserve. The remainder of the LEU is being used to pay for the down-blending and processing costs. This will leave the AFS with approximately six reloads for an average 1,000 MW reactor.

The AFS reserve is modest in size and designed not to disrupt or replace market mechanisms. Rather, it is to be sold at market value in the event of demonstrated need after all other market options are exhausted.  DOE published an announcement of the availability of the AFS today in the Federal Register. The AFS will be available through U.S. persons to both domestic and foreign recipients. The Secretary of Energy will approve any AFS sale and have the authority to prioritize requests.

The NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation and International Security will chair an AFS Committee that will be responsible for assessing eligibility of applicants and making a recommendation to the Secretary on the sale of LEU from the AFS. This Committee will include representatives from several different DOE offices, including DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, and the DOE and NNSA Offices of General Counsel.

Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science in the nation’s national security enterprise. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability, and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; reduces the global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.

DOE, NNSA Announce Availability of Reserve Stockpile of Nuclear Power Reactor Fuel Material from Down-blending of Surplus Weapons-Usable Uranium, Press Release, Aug 18, 2011