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US Department of Energy report criticises radioactive waste safety procedures at Los Alamos

06 October 2014

A government report released on October 1 criticised the safety procedures for handling radioactive waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, following a leak that prompted a shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., in February.

The WIPP site in New Mexico - Image: DOE
The WIPP site in New Mexico - Image: DOE

The inspector general of the Department of Energy (DOE) said a barrel of plutonium-tainted debris was improperly packaged, then shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. to be stored in an underground storage facility a half-mile beneath the surface.

Once at WIPP, a salt truck caught fire underground, causing a chemical reaction inside a waste drum that released trace amounts of americium and plutonium. Some 22 plant employees were contaminated, forcing a shutdown of the facility that is still in effect.

Operations at WIPP have been suspended and the nation's only operating deep geologic repository for the permanent disposal of defence related radioactive waste was shut down for an indefinite period, costing tens of millions of dollars.

Among the critical points made in the report, the DOE accused the laboratory of permitting the introduction of potentially incompatible materials in waste drums to be stored at WIPP, and a failure of the lab's safety procedures to prevent this from occurring.

"Our review identified several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed to the radiological event," said the report.  "Of particular concern, not all waste management procedures at LANL were properly vetted through the established procedure revision process nor did they conform to established environmental requirements."

There was also concern about how the lab was disposing of volatile mixtures of nitrate salts and organic matter which a 2000 US Environmental Protection Agency report found to be "inherently hazardous."

Even before the report was released, there was a personnel shakeup at the lab.

Four senior nuclear waste officials have been reassigned by the LANL and the Department of Energy announced its intention to remove the environmental management portion of the contract from the lab, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz ordered the cleanup program moved from the National Nuclear Security Administration to the department's Office of Environmental Management so the contractor can focus on its core national security missions.

"The safe and efficient cleanup of the Los Alamos site in New Mexico is a high priority for the Department of Energy," the department said in a statement. "NNSA and EM will work together to evaluate all elements necessary for an effective transition including federal oversight, acquisition strategies, and quality, safety and security."

Officials have yet to pinpoint what caused the barrel of waste from Los Alamos to breach on February 14 in one of the half-mile deep rooms at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad. One theory has focused on a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with a lead glove and organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

Officials have said a switch by Los Alamos from inorganic to organic cat litter may have helped fuel the heat event that blew the lid off the barrel. As the investigation continues, hundreds of other barrels of Los Alamos waste with similar contents and organic cat litter are being closely monitored at Los Alamos, WIPP and a temporary site in West Texas.

At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, officials are working on a plan to decontaminate the mine and seal off the rooms with the suspect waste. Moniz has said it could take up to three years to reopen the multi-billion-dollar site.

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