LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Reports from an independent safety panel show radioactive contamination was found on a worker’s hands and other places at a nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico — the latest safety lapse at the facility as it ramps up work with nuclear material.
All pipefitting work was paused after a crew had to be stripped and decontaminated on May 16 because of the discovery at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, according to weekly briefings from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
Contamination also was found on the crew’s protective clothing and in a work area, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported .
The briefings also show members of another crew placed plutonium salts in a prohibited area.
The lapses are the latest in a series of radiation releases and operational mistakes at Los Alamos, which was recently tasked with building at least 30 plutonium cores a year, which are used to trigger nuclear weapons.
Lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said Monday the workers were thoroughly decontaminated – mostly by washing off the contamination with water. None received any measurable dose of radiation, he said.
Nerzig also said the incident with the plutonium salts did not result in a significant safety risk to workers or the public.
The events were self-reported by the lab – a practice that Nerzig said is part of an effort to improve and maintain a safety culture.
“The laboratory’s work with nuclear materials on behalf of the country is complex, challenging and comes with inherent risks,” Nerzig said. “The safety systems and procedures in place at the laboratory’s plutonium facility are designed to greatly reduce the risk to laboratory employees, the public and the environment.”
Producing plutonium cores is dangerous work and meticulous safety rules are intended to prevent a runaway chain reaction.
Numerous problems complying with the rules have been reported over the years, including a shutdown of the plutonium facility for more than a year in 2013.
Since January, there have been at least six instances in which the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board included details of contamination events at Los Alamos. The board monitors federal nuclear installations around the U.S.
The board noted that the event last month involving the pipefitters was similar to a contamination event last September. In both cases, workers were installing piping on a box with attached gloves used to manipulate nuclear elements.