Nuclear Facilities Safety

On Sunday, June 26, 2011, a 75-foot-tall aspen tree in the Santa Fe National Forest fell on a power line, igniting the Las Conchas fire, which quickly became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

The fire exploded to over 40,000 acres by Monday, threatening Los Alamos National Laboratory and the nearby town. In response, the Laboratory shut down, mandating that all nonessential personnel not come to work on Monday. By Monday afternoon, the fire danger had grown so great that Los Alamos County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for the town. Ultimately, the fire consumed more than 156,000 acres across 244 square miles of forest. By comparison, the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 burned 48,000 acres and several hundred homes in the town of Los Alamos. It also destroyed several outlying Laboratory structures, none of which contained nuclear materials.

EOC Photo

Los Alamos National Laboratory senior managers meet at LANL's Emergency Operations Center during the Las Conchas wildfire.

This time, because of the Laboratory's advanced preparedness, lessons learned from the Cerro Grande fire, the valiant work of hundreds of firefighters and other responders, and the accommodating winds, the Las Conchas fire did not burn Laboratory facilities, or the town. Even if the fire had burned across Laboratory property, "there was never any danger to our nuclear facilities during the Las Conchas fire," emphasizes Chris James, the Laboratory's deputy associate director for Nuclear and High Hazard Operations. "Our nuclear facilities are intentionally hardened [robust], enough that even if the wildfire had engulfed them, they wouldn't have burned. The wildfire would have burned around them like it would around a pile of stones. The fire wouldn't have found anything to burn; it would have moved on. Furthermore, we shut down our facilities, following precise plans that ensured these facilities would pose no danger to the public or the environment during our absence. In addition, we kept essential personnel onsite to maintain safety and security while the fire raged."

"Our nuclear facilities are intentionally hardened, enough that even if the wildfire had engulfed them, they wouldn't have burned. The wildfire would have burned around them like it would around a pile of stones."
–Chris James, deputy associate director for Nuclear and High Hazard Operations

To counter the threat of wildfires and other threats to the Laboratory, Los Alamos works with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) to put in place rigorous orders, policies, and procedures designed to ensure the safety and security of all structures, not just those that handle nuclear materials.

"When it comes to the robustness of the nuclear facilities at Los Alamos, our effort is analogous to the rigor of building and maintaining aircraft versus automobiles," explains James. "If an automobile breaks down while on the road, there's a good possibility the driver will be able to pull off the road safely. However, if an aircraft breaks down while in flight, the chances of landing it safely are much less likely. Our goal in constructing and maintaining nuclear facilities is to minimize all possible threats as much as possible."

WETF: Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility

Scientists and engineers at WETF perform experiments with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Tritium is used, for example, in nuclear weapons, laser fusion, and accelerator research and for basic research in materials science. The 5,000-square-foot WETF is located at Technical Area 16 at the southwestern border of the Laboratory. This area was directly in the path of the Las Conchas fire.

To protect this facility, its contents, and its ongoing experiments, WETF is constructed of reinforced concrete and has numerous safety systems to protect the facility in the event of a wildfire or other emergency. For example, WETF is engineered to be protected against an internal fire, lightning, and seismic threats. The facility includes racks specially engineered to safely store containers (also specially engineered) of tritium gas during a seismic event. WETF's gloveboxes are engineered to ensure hazardous materials are safely contained during emergencies. Gloveboxes are sealed containers that staff use for work with hazardous materials. Gas handling operations and gas waste treatment processes are monitored throughout the facility. Concrete barriers are in place to protect from vehicular assaults.

In addition to these engineered safety controls, WETF has in place numerous administrative safety controls. For example, to ensure that the engineered controls will function as needed, Los Alamos inspectors conduct—according to procedures—daily, weekly, monthly, semiannual, and annual reviews and evaluations of their systems. There is a limit placed on the amount of combustible and flammable materials kept onsite. Strict operating requirements and maintenance programs are maintained.

Security measures at WETF ensure that only cleared employees are allowed access to the facility. An employee must hold an active Q clearance from DOE and have completed specific training to enter. Additional clearances and training are required before an employee can enter hazardous material storage areas like WETF.

Las Conchas wildfire

The Las Conchas wildfire burned more than 156,000 acres of forest. Although the fire threatened to engulf the town of Los Alamos,= firefighters managed to thwart its progress.

How the Laboratory Shuts Down WETF during an Emergency

"We follow emergency operating procedures that provide guidance based on the type of emergency," says Raeanna Sharp-Geiger, LANL's the director of Weapons Facility Operations. "At WETF, we first ensure that all employees and co-located workers are safe. If it is safe to do so, we secure any operations that are in process (from both safety and security standpoints), place all at-risk material in the safest condition, and determine if additional actions are required. Concurrently, we notify affected organizations and managers about the emergency and assess the need for additional resources, as needed."

Once a facility like WETF is shut down, even more- restrictive controls are put in place, starting with dedicated evacuation and response plans. Personnel begin remote-monitoring capabilities, and trained and qualified emergency responders assess and control the site. Depending on the type of incident, personnel may continue to perform daily inspections, much like they did during the Las Conchas fire. Personnel may also continue to conduct required surveillance and in-service inspections to support administrative and engineering controls.

How the Laboratory Restarts WETF after an Emergency

Restarting WETF after an emergency is also a complex process. "We follow a restoration process that involves reviewing the facility's status at the start of the incident and throughout the response," says Sharp-Geiger. "Once we have completed that task, but before re-entry, we remotely monitor the environment of the facility and then conduct disciplined walkthroughs to evaluate its systems, structures, and components. Personnel note items that need further evaluation by trained and qualified engineers and operations specialists. These activities occur before any general re-entry into the facility and before workers resume routine work activities."

CMR: Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility

Originally constructed in 1952, CMR's primary purpose was to house research and experimental activities involving analytical chemistry; plutonium and uranium chemistry and metallurgy; and related engineering design, electronics, and support functions. Today, CMR continues to serve as an analytical chemistry laboratory that supports a wide variety of national security missions carried out by Los Alamos. The CMR facility contains hot cells, used to enable safe handling of highly radioactive materials. Hot cells are shielded nuclear radiation containment chambers, whereas gloveboxes are sealed containers designed to enable workers to manipulate objects in a separate atmosphere (such as inert or low pressure).

For CMR, the Laboratory adheres to the requirements in an approved Documented Safety Analysis (DSA), a document that stipulates how Los Alamos will operate the facility and will manage risks to on- and off-site personnel, the facility, and the environment. Safety measures at CMR include ventilation systems with HEPA filters, a fire-suppression system, fire partitions and doors, and walls designed to prevent fire from spreading from one wing to another. There are restrictions on the quantities of combustibles (both inside and outside the facility), flammable gasses, and other hazardous materials onsite. As part of the DSA, engineers performed calculations that showed a wildfire would not cause CMR to catch fire.

During the Las Conchas fire, concerns were expressed in the media about radiation possibly escaping if a nuclear facility like CMR went up in flames. Such a scenario would not be possible at CMR. Like WETF, CMR is hardened so it cannot catch fire and burn in a wildfire. In addition, "We have TSR [Technical Safety Requirement] controls on all combustibles around and in the CMR facility," says Paul Sasa, director of CMR Facility Operations. "For example, at nuclear facility sites, including the CMR site, any radioactive materials stored outside are in approved containers that are robust enough to resist fire."

CMR Building

Like WETF, CMR is hardened so it cannot catch fire and burn in a wildfire and has restrictions on quantities of combustibles inside and outside the facility. Note the lack of flammable vegetation close to the facility.

How the Laboratory Shuts Down CMR during an Emergency

There are special procedures for shutting down CMR, depending on the type of emergency.

"For a facility fire, our emergency procedures require immediate evacuation first—personnel safety is first priority," says Sasa. "We have training and a set of procedures on how to respond to anticipated emergencies. In the case of the Las Conchas fire, we brought personnel in on Monday—the fire started on Sunday—and turned down the ventilation systems to their 'minimum ventilation' mode. This means we turned off the air supply fans to the facility, which minimized the smoke intake that could plug air filters, and ran one exhaust fan at slow speed, which meant that air was continuously being removed from the gloveboxes. This procedure kept the gloveboxes at negative pressure, as in a vacuum, and kept the contamination inside the glovebox."

Many fires have threatened the region, including the La Mesa fire (1977), the Dome fire (1995), and the Oso fire (1998). With each fire, the Laboratory and neighboring communities learn more, increasingly effective fire-prevention techniques.

Other safety measures include drills throughout the year that involve facility evacuations and the establishment of Facility Incident Commands (FICs), a national process designed to address emergencies. Factors to consider during an emergency include the following: determining wind direction to decide which assembly area evacuees must go to, accounting for all personnel within 30 minutes, and collecting information from employees regarding equipment or processes or other factors that are, or can become, safety issues. This information is passed on to the emergency responders. Safety measures are very detailed, for example, closing streets if conditions warrant and providing water and chairs for employees who may have medical conditions.

"CMR has a formal FIC," explains Sasa. "Personnel have been trained for specific positions, such as in incident command, accountability, radiation protection, communications with the LANL Emergency Operations Center and responders, and safety. We have an FIC war room in the facility and store all needed supplies in trailers at both the primary and secondary assembly areas."

Learning from Past Wildfires

Many fires have threatened the region, including the La Mesa fire (1977), the Dome fire (1995), and the Oso fire (1998). With each fire, the Laboratory and neighboring communities learn more, increasingly effective fire-prevention techniques.

For example, after the Cerro Grande fire, Los Alamos received funding to build the Emergency Operations Center, which was used to manage operations around the clock during the Las Conchas fire. Los Alamos received $24 million for firefighting equipment, some of which was donated to neighboring communities that, in turn, helped Los Alamos fight the Las Conchas fire.

Doug Tucker, fire chief

Doug Tucker, fire chief for the County of Los Alamos, now retired, oversaw the county's emergency response to the Las Conchas wildfire. Tucker, along with Police Chief Wayne Torpy, was honored with a special plaque for his leadership during the fire.

"We removed incredible amounts of brush and fuel from the technical sites," says James, "and built additional fire roads and constructed 186 miles of fuel breaks. Key buildings now have safe zones devoid of flammable vegetation."

"We will continue to learn from the Las Conchas fire," says Tony Stanford, the Laboratory's lead emergency director during large-scale crises. "Whenever we find new ways to improve our response to any emergency, we will adopt them."

-Octavio Ramos Jr.

Las Conchas Fire photo

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