Western Exposure

Previously unknown fault line under nuke lab could trigger release of lethal material

By October 28, 2009March 19th, 20152 Comments

During an earthquake, a fault line under the Los Alamos National Laboratory could yaw open and topple buildings filled with plutonium, which could burst into flames and release lethal amounts of radioactive material into the surrounding air.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s safety and response analysis relied on inadequate safety measures not yet implemented, found the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging “immediate and long-term actions” to contain and mitigate the plume of toxic smoke and vaporized plutonium that could arise during an earthquake.

The “offsite consequences” exceed the Energy Department’s guidelines by “two orders of magnitude,” the federal safety experts wrote.  They described the buildings’ physical structure as the  only containment barrier to a fire.

In the worst-case fire scenario, someone standing at the edge of the lab’s boundaries would die within weeks from the exposure.  It is unknown to the general public how much plutonium is contained at Los Alamos, though the Los Angeles Times reports that lab engineers are considering moving  some of the plutonium elsewhere in a costly process.

Thirty six miles from Santa Fe,  Los Alamos National Laboratory is surrounded by Indian reservations such as the San Idelfonso Pueblo, which is famous for its black-on-black pottery.  Just south of Los Alamos is the 33,000-acre Bandelier National Monument, where rock walls bear the homes and art of the Ancestral Pueblo people’s 10,000-year history.

The fault line’s threat was discovered to be much more devastating than originally anticipated; the misjudgment in the laboratory’s safety and security was discovered by engineers planning a new plutonium facility.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, also known as LANL, is operated for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration by the private LLC Los Alamos National Security.  The lab describes its mission as “to develop and apply science and technology to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and to “reduce global threats.”

During the Manhattan Project, LANL scientists created the first nuclear bombs, including “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” which were used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


  • Craig Bender says:

    The editing of the original LA Times article to this Investigate WEST item is disappointing.

    Kristen has completely omitted the the facts that LANL is reviewing their building designs, considering different storage plans, and putting in more production safeguards. All this when the worst-case scenario that is stressed will require a major earthquake in an area that has a low likelihood of earthquakes occurring.

    Kristen is correct that Los Alamos county is surrounded by Indian reservations and wonderful natural places such as Bandelier National Monument. She has forgotten that a town of 12,000 is Los Alamos. A town full of workers and their families, those individuals of above average education and technical skill would not place their families at risk if the Facilities Safety Board finding were likely to happen.

    To be a meaningful news source on environmental issues Investigate WEST articles must provide complete articles, not worse case only “the sky is falling” fears.

  • Kristen Millares Young says:

    Dear Craig,

    You are absolutely right that I should have included the town Los Alamos — thank you for pointing that out. Readers like you help keep us sharp.

    However, regarding your other points, please visit the link I included to the Facilities Safety Board letter, which expounds on my reference to LANL’s mitigation review, which you wrote was absent:

    I wrote “The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s safety and response analysis relied on inadequate safety measures not yet implemented.”

    The letter described LANL’s mitigation plans as indefensible, not to be implemented for many years and insufficient to address the posited and plausible accident scenarios. Federal safety experts also wrote that “The only safety feature that can be credited for these accident scenarios is the passive confinement provided by the facility structure.”

    If you disagree with the federal analysis of LANL’s safety measures, I would love to hear more about it. Please post your thoughts here or email me at kyoung@invw.org.


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