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Quake ‘could trigger plutonium leak’ at Los Alamos

Immediate action should be taken to prevent plutonium leaks following a potential future earthquake at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was warned this week.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says an earthquake could trigger a fire inside high-risk gloveboxes where work on plutonium takes place. Los Alamos sits on a fault line, so an earthquake would not be unexpected.

The consequences of an earthquake-induced fire in the lab’s plutonium facility exceed the Department of Energy’s guidelines by over two orders of magnitude, says the board.

“The board believes this situation warrants immediate attention and action,” states a letter to Chu dated 26 October (pdf).

According to the Project on Government Oversight, the energy department has been trying to delay the board’s report in order to deal with the problem before it became public. It claims that a glovebox fire could cause the public to be exposed to 100 times the recommended safe level of plutonium.

In a statement to AP and the LA Times, the lab said it was already taking action to improve fire safety at the Technical Area-55 facility.

“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,” it says.

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