Public safety should be cause for concern

The Albuquerque Journal

A federal nuclear safety board — not rabid antinuclear protesters or perennial not-in-my-backyard nuclear critics — contends the reactor at Sandia National Labs might pose safety issues.

And the best Sandia can do is offer up two paragraphs of vague assurances that amount to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

The public that finances the lab and lives and works with its reactor in its midst deserves better. So does the lab itself, which is incredibly important to the national defense, to New Mexico and to Albuquerque.

In a letter to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board details several areas of Sandia’s safety analysis it says inadequately estimate the risk to workers — and the public — from accidents at the lab’s Annular Core Research Reactor. Things like a rod moving uncontrolled within the reactor.

The board asks the NNSA to come up with a plan to address the concerns within three months. And rather than specifically refute the findings or explain how they have been addressed or offer some timeline for ensuring best practices are in place at the reactor, the lab has decided to tell the public in so many words that hey, we’ve been down this yellow brick road before and have no intention of traveling it again.

No matter who says things might be unsafe.

Sandia’s official response came via a terse email, and said the safety analysis of the ACRR “has been scrutinized and independently reviewed many times by a variety of independent safety experts. These analyses demonstrate that the public, our workers and the environment are protected during all ACRR operations. Sandia is committed to continuous improvement and appreciates the insight provided by the Defense Board.”

In other words, Sandia appreciates the insight, but this is no big deal.

That may well be the case. But since the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s duties include safeguarding the public and, by extension, Sandia’s mission, the lab needs to be more forthcoming with answers to and accountability for the board’s concerns.

A good start would be Sandia National Laboratories President Paul Hommert pulling back the curtain and publicly laying out the case for why there is zero to worry about when it comes to the lab reactor, or explaining exactly what is being done to ensure there will be zero to worry about going forward.