DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY PLUTONIUM VULNERABILITY ANALYSIS
In March 1994, Department of Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary commissioned a
comprehensive assessment to identify and prioritize the environment, safety and health
vulnerabilities that arise from the storage of plutonium in the DOE facilities and determine
which are the most dangerous and urgent. These vulnerabilities are degradation in
plutonium materials and packaging, and weakness in facilities and administrative controls
that can expose workers and public, or contaminate the environment. The summary of the
results presented in this section is taken from DOE/DP-0123T, Assessment of Plutonium
Storage Safety Issues at Department of Energy Facilities (DOE, 1994a).
The assessment was commissioned because of recent ruptures of stored plutonium
packages and the need to store safely the large amount of plutonium-bearing materials held
by the DOE in its aging facilities. The ultimate goal of the assessment was to facilitate safe
and stable interim storage until its final disposition, which is not expected to take place for
at least 10 to 20 years. The assessment covered 166 facilities at 35 site and employed a
Working Group process. The Plutonium Working Group combined the talent of DOE
federal staff, site management and operations contractors, consultants and stakeholders.
The Working Group developed plans and technical approaches for the assessment and
evaluated the assessment results. Overall, this assessment took more than six months and
During the assessment, the DOE discussed information about vulnerabilities with
stakeholders. About 45 stakeholder groups were involved in either the Working Group
meetings or local activities associated with site assessments.
Excluding the classified mass of plutonium contained in nuclear weapon pits at the Pantex
Plant in Texas, these sites hold 26 metric tons of plutonium. Most of this is located in
Rocky Flats, Colorado; Hanford, Washington; Argonne-West, Idaho; Los Alamos, New
Mexico; and Savannah River Site, South Carolina. The report details the most significant
vulnerabilities within each site and across all sites. The Working Group categorized and
classified vulnerabilities based on possible effects on workers, the public or environment.
The DOE-wide assessment identified 299 environment, safety and health vulnerabilities at
13 sites, consisting of 91 material/packaging vulnerabilities, 140 facility condition
vulnerabilities and 68 institutional vulnerabilities.
In general, the vulnerabilities identified in this assessment pose the greatest hazards to
workers. Packaging, which the Working Group found to be widely deficient for long term
storage, is often the only barrier that separates the workers from the plutonium. Plutonium
solutions are the form most difficult to store and present unique hazards. Plutonium scrap
and residue forms are reactive, and some are corrosive enough to degrade containers.
Plutonium metals and oxides generally present fewer problems, but much of this material is
stored in plastic, which can react with plutonium and cause container failure.
Facility conditions that cause vulnerabilities include aging safety systems, holdup of
plutonium in process systems, and design problems that weaken the ability to mitigate
accidents like fires or earthquakes. In addition to their impact on workers, such large-scale
events have the potential to release plutonium that could affect the public and environment.