Los Alamos National Laboratory conducts much of the nation's nuclear security research, and a new study has found that the plutonium facility may not be equipped to safely ride out an earthquake.
The lab, situated about 56 kilometers outside of Santa Fe, N.M., has long been known to be on a fault line, and builders have installed substantial fire safety measures. But recent planning for a new structure revealed that the fault could move much more than previously assumed, revealing a crack in the lab's safety plans, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board submitted a letter on Monday to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting "the need to execute both immediate and long-term actions that can reduce the risk posed a seismic event."
Should an earthquake knock over plutonium furnaces in Technical Area 55 (TA-55), a severe fire could ensue, carrying deadly amounts of radiation at least to the boundaries of the lab and possibly beyond, the Times noted.
Although the study by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board represents a worst-case scenario, the lack of seismically stable plutonium stations and relevant fire safety plans constitutes "a major deficiency," the letter noted.
An unrelated safety audit of the lab from June from the DOE inspector general found hundreds of other fire "deficiencies" that had not been fixed despite previously being flagged.
"Protecting the health and safety of our employees, the public, and the environment while conducting operations all across the laboratory, particularly at the plutonium facility, TA-55, is our primary concern," a Los Alamos lab statement said.
A 2000 fire that destroyed some lab property scorched a total of 43,000 acres.
Image of Los Alamos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/DOE