On February 2, 2010, Department of Energy (“DOE”) Secretary Steven Chu pledged to institute several reforms at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium facility in an effort to prevent radioactive releases in the event of an earthquake. 

On October 25, 2009, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (“DNFSB”) sent a letter to Secretary Chu calling for immediate steps to reduce the risk of a plutonium release as a result of possible earthquake damage at Los Alamos.  DNFSB stated that such radioactive releases from the facility could exceed the DOE’s public health guidelines by more than two orders of magnitude.  Under established “evaluation guidelines,” the DOE must contemplate safety measures when a potential nuclear accident poses a risk that a person on the boundary of the site could receive a radioactive dose exceeding 25 rems.  The average person gets a 0.36 rem dose each year naturally from background radiation.  The Los Alamos site potential release of two orders of magnitude above the public health guideline would be lethal at 2,500 rems.

In a letter to the DNFSB, Secretary Chu pledged to implement several reforms at Los Alamos National Laboratory, including: (1)reduction of nuclear materials storage; (2) improved ventilation and emissions controls; (3) addressing fire concerns; and (4) strengthening equipment support in the plutonium facility to eliminate the risk of radioactive release that could result from earthquake damage. 

Chu noted that the Los Alamos Nuclear Security LLC (“LANS”), a DOE contractor operating the nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico, had already begun working to reduce the risk of a radioactive release from possible fires in the plutonium facility as a result of an earthquake.  In addition, the National Nuclear Security Administration (“NNSA”), a DOE agency that runs the department’s nuclear weapons complex, had provided additional money to LANS for safety improvement measures and $1.3 million in performance-based incentives to repackage and dispose of nuclear materials, to update seismic analyses and to provide system upgrades.