By MIA STEINLE
An ongoing government analysis of an important nuclear weapons laboratory’s ability to withstand earthquakes may be flawed, according to a federal oversight panel.
The analysis of how the plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory would hold up in a strong earthquake “is technically inadequate” in several ways, the oversight panel wrote in a July 18 letter to the Department of Energy.
“Timely action must be taken to fully understand if additional building modifications are required,” the oversight board said.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in the letter that it “remains concerned by the seismic integrity of the Plutonium Facility,” adding that the ongoing analysis has “profound implications for ensuring public health and safety.”
The analysis in dispute is being performed by the Department of Energy’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and by the contractors that operate the New Mexico laboratory.
Asked for comment, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha said his agency is working on a response to the oversight panel.
"Regardless of any future improvements, the risk to the public from operations at [the Los Alamos plutonium facility] remains very small," he said, adding that "the facility is operating well within the safety objectives established by [Department of Energy] safety policy, and public safety is adequately protected."
The oversight panel’s criticism comes one month after the panel issued a report that found that Los Alamos National Laboratory had underestimated the amount of radiation that could leak from the plutonium facility as a result of an earthquake. As the Project On Government Oversight reported, the panel concluded that the radiation could be more than four times as intense as the laboratory had estimated.