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Environment chief: WIPP leak probe likely to reveal LANL lapses

Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 10:42 pm, Tue Jun 10, 2014.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican

Federal investigators seeking the cause of a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad have narrowed their focus to six containers of highly acidic nuclear waste, New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday.

One of the drums is the suspected source of a chemical reaction that led to the leak at WIPP, and the other five are stored at Waste Control Specialists in Texas along the New Mexico border, according to the state Environment Department.

During a two-and-a-half-hour briefing of the joint Legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, Flynn also said the investigation has illuminated deficiencies in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s processes.

Flynn questioned whether the lab sufficiently vetted contractors’ proposed changes in substances added to the nuclear waste before approving the changes. When the federal investigation into the leak is complete, Flynn said, he expects it will identify the same lapses.

“A lot of these issues … will be in that final report, issues with procedures and perhaps a lack of involvement from appropriate scientific personnel in approving or developing these procedures, or answering questions as they arise,” he said.

A LANL spokesman conceded the investigation has revealed problems with the lab’s processes.

“In addition to pursing the technical basis for understanding the WIPP event, our preliminary internal investigation has revealed weaknesses in our own processes,” Matthew Nerzig said, “and we need to determine whether this contributed to the event and make immediate course corrections.”

Waste generated at Los Alamos during decades of Cold War nuclear weapons research ceased being shipped to WIPP, the nation’s lone below-ground nuclear waste storage site, after the Feb. 14 radiation leak was detected. Since then, investigators have concentrated on a burst drum stored at WIPP that is the suspected source of the radiation leak.

Investigators have not pinpointed the cause of the leak, but they are focusing their attention on a half-dozen drums, including the suspected source of the leak at WIPP, that contain organic kitty litter rather than the traditional clay-based variety and unusually acidic waste derived from evaporators used in the development of nuclear weapons.

The switch to plant-based kitty litter as an absorbent material has been a leading theory in investigators’ quest to find the source of the chemical reaction that caused the leak. But Flynn said the kitty litter was most likely the fuel that burned in a dramatic heat event following a chemical reaction, and not the element that triggered the initial reaction.

Scientists’ have been unable to duplicate the reaction in experiments conducted during their investigation.

The waste stream currently under scrutiny by investigators was the subject of email messages between waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions and Los Alamos lab personnel, made public last month by the New Mexico Environment Department, that illustrate gaps in the lab’s processes that worry Flynn, he said.

The messages, sent last summer, were initiated by EnergySolutions, which sought permission to change acid neutralizers mixed with the waste they packaged in order to more easily measure the acidity of the mixed waste. Despite an EnergySolutions representative’s suggestion that the lab consult a chemist during its consideration of the request, the lab authorized the switch.

When the messages became public, outside chemists promptly criticized the authorization, saying it should have been evident that introducing the neutralizer to strong oxidizers contained in the lab waste made for a volatile mix. In fact, in the manufacturer’s warnings on the neutralizer, which EnergySolutions provided to the lab when it sought permission for the switch, it was explicitly stated that the neutralizer was incompatible with oxidizers.

Flynn said to date, the investigation has shown that EnergySolutions followed proper steps for authorization to change composition of the waste mix, calling into question whether LANL procedures ultimately contributed to the release of toxic radiation at WIPP.

“If you’re dealing with a particularly nasty waste stream,” Flynn said, “the people who are actually doing the remediation work need to have access to people with scientific backgrounds who can understand the interaction of the chemistry when you introduce different agents.”

WIPP is temporarily mothballed, and could remain at a standstill for months if not a couple of years, according to some federal estimates. Waste shipments there ceased following the radiation leak.

Nonetheless, a congressional subcommittee on Tuesday approved a request from the U.S. Department of Energy for an additional $120 million for recovery efforts at WIPP in addition to more than $200 million already being sought for operation and management of the waste site. The request’s approval by the U.S. House Appropriations, Energy and Water Development Subcommittee is merely the first step in a long legislative journey.

Leaders of watchdog organizations that monitor the nuclear weapons complex in New Mexico say the Department of Energy’s request can only be viewed as a guess at what the recovery at WIPP might cost, considering that the cause of the leak and magnitude of the contamination have not yet been corralled.

“All these things are unknown, so they can’t say that the $120 million is going to get it up and running,” said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said details about the proposed cleanup in the budget request were scant. “It’s not clear to us how recovery is going to proceed,” he said.

The budget request seeks to fund recovery efforts at WIPP with excess money from pension funds established for contractors involved in the nuclear weapons complex.

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who chairs the Legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, said he recognizes that any decisions about federal funding for recovery at WIPP currently don’t have the benefit of complete details to support them.

“Congress is in the same holding pattern as the rest of us in terms of the details,” he said. “Everybody wants to figure out what happened.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

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