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Plutonium Glitch Forced Shutdown of Nuclear Arsenal Support System

The unintentional release of minute pieces of plutonium from a holding receptacle in 2009 forced the United States to deactivate for more than two years a nuclear arsenal support system at the Nevada National Security Site, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on Friday (see GSN, Jan. 9).

A February 2009 plutonium trial was followed by detection of "an abnormal amount of radiation" by personnel working with the Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research firing system, the Energy Department's inspector general said in a report last week.

"We did a shot, and when it occurred, the plutonium was not captured in the primary containment vessel, and some of it got out into the secondary containment chamber," Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for the Nevada National Security Site, said on Thursday. "We had to get that cleaned up and find out why that happened."

Preparation of new apparatus, including two new container units, and the complete restoration of system functionality required $18.9 million in National Nuclear Security Administration expenditures, Energy Department auditors wrote in the assessment. As repairs took place, government experts used information from such sources as the Z machine at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to achieve goals aimed at assisting the Stockpile Stewardship Program that is intended to ensure the maintenance of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The JASPER firing unit provides supplementary data on the condition of plutonium over time to help inform findings from subcritical tests carried out at the Nevada site over the last 15 years. The subcritical trials do not involve fission chain reactions that produce nuclear explosions (see GSN, July 20, 2011).

Energy Department investigators determined that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California lacked "policies and procedures in place to ensure that deteriorated plutonium targets were not used in JASPER experiments," stated David Sedillo, the inspector general's Western Audits Division chief.

"Livermore plans to analyze factors affecting the deterioration of targets and to evaluate methods for assessing the condition of targets prior to use in experiments. Additionally, Livermore officials told us that they will establish new controls over the use of targets after they have established a shelf life/expiration date," the official wrote last Monday in comments accompanying the assessment.

"The impact of not conducting experiments at the JASPER facility since February 2009 resulted in Livermore and [the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico] not having experimental data both planned to use to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program and certification of the U.S. nuclear stockpile," Sedillo said.

The JASPER system has carried out 96 trial firings following its assembly in 1999. Its initial plutonium test took place on July 8, 2003, and it conducted its 39th plutonium trial on March 14 (Keith Rogers, Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 20).

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