Nuclear Accidents At DOE Sites Not Imminent

A nuclear safety assessment of key DOE sites around the country concludes that there is no imminent risk of nuclear accident at those sites.

The Department of Energy (DOE) last week released the results of a nuclear safety assessment of its key sites around the country.

The study concludes that there is no imminent risk of a nuclear accident at the department''s nuclear sites but also highlights steps that should be taken to improve nuclear safety programs and the professional expertise of those responsible for implementing nuclear safety precautions.

The study was directed by President Clinton after the September 1999 nuclear accident in Japan.

"Safety is job one at all of our nuclear facilities," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "I will make sure DOE takes every step to continually strengthen and improve the ways we ensure the safety of our workers, the public and the environment."

The report, "Nuclear Critically Safety at Key Department of Energy Facilities," assesses the risk of an unplanned nuclear reaction -- or nuclear critically accident -- at major sites in the department''s nuclear weapons complex.

The study finds that the risk of an accident similar to the one in Japan does not exist in the United States.

The report focuses on the department''s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site outside Denver, Colo.; Hanford Site in Washington; Savannah River Site in South Carolina; and Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

These sites were examined because they deal with fissile liquids, which are capable of causing uncontrolled nuclear reaction if not handled properly.

Fissile liquids have been involved in all but one criticality accident worldwide in the past 42 years.

No criticality accident has occurred at a DOE facility for more than 20 years.

The reported identifies two general areas for improvement at DOE''s headquarters and three general areas for improvement at its sites.

It recommends headquarters revise DOE orders and guidance to remove inconsistencies with national industry standards and strengthen nuclear critically safety programs at sites.

The report also recommends that all sites assess their safety programs and take any steps needed to ensure operators understand the controls and technical bases designed to prevent accidents; ensure strict adherence to procedures and controls; and improve the processes for feedback and improvement.

Last November, DOE directed comprehensive self-assessments at all nuclear facilities, including the Pantex Plant in Texas and other sites that handle or store other nuclear materials typically in stable forms.

The assessments and corrective actions plans, if needed, are targeted for completion next month.

A copy of the report is available on-line at www.eh.doe.gov.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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