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Federal report: LANL violated environmental requirements

Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2014 10:00 pm | Updated: 7:25 am, Thu Oct 2, 2014.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican

A blistering new federal report says Los Alamos National Laboratory failed to follow its own safety procedures and ignored internal reports warning against mixing potentially volatile chemicals in the handling and packaging of nuclear waste — a series of missteps that may have led directly to a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The report, released Wednesday by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, paints a disturbing picture of safety and oversight weaknesses at one of the nation’s premier nuclear weapons and research laboratories. Though the cause of the leak is still under investigation, the report is the most damning assessment yet of the lab’s role in the Feb. 14 incident that exposed more than 20 workers at WIPP to low levels of radioactive contamination and shut down the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste.

The Energy Department said Tuesday it could take up to five years and $500 million to restore WIPP to full operations.

At the heart of the report is the lab’s decision to begin using organic kitty litter as an absorbent in drums of nuclear waste despite internal reports issued just months earlier warning that such a mixture could be hazardous.

“Although yet to be finally confirmed, this action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications,” the report said.

The report also lays blame for the weaknesses on EnergySolutions, the contractor the lab hired to mix and package waste. In addition to switching from clay kitty litter to an organic variety, the report also found that LANL and EnergySolutions ignored clear warnings against adding a liquid acid neutralizer to the waste — another potentially hazardous combination.

“LANL’s waste processing and safety-related control procedures should have prevented the addition of these potentially incompatible materials,” the report said. “However, the process failed in this matter.”

The report comes just days after LANL replaced four managers responsible for cleaning up nuclear waste left over from decades of nuclear weapons research at the lab.

In a written statement, a lab spokesman acknowledged that LANL and the Energy Department had identified some of the same concerns noted in the report.

“We will actively address the OIG’s recommendations in our continuing efforts to learn from these events and improve our operational practices,” the lab’s statement read.

A spokesman for EnergySolutions said the contractor had no comment about the report.

By adding organic kitty litter and neutralizer to the nuclear waste, LANL violated terms of its operating agreement with the state, according to the report.

The New Mexico Environment Department has regulatory authority over LANL and WIPP as the issuer of their operating permits.

Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn told a panel of state lawmakers in July that LANL officials had confessed to regulators that they had treated waste in the drum that ultimately ruptured, even though such waste treatment was not authorized by the lab’s pact with the state.

“There was something put there in direct violation of our permit, and certainly on that issue, there will be consequences,” Flynn told the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee during a meeting in Los Alamos.

Flynn’s department has authority to halt operations at both sites if the terms of the permit the department issued are violated. LANL could face fines up to $3,000 a day for the permit violation it admitted, according to the inspector general’s report.

“The latest report issued by the Office of Inspector General validates many of the same concerns the New Mexico Environment Department has expressed to the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory,” Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester said in a written statement. “NMED continues to examine permit violations that appear to have occurred during the handling of [transuranic] waste at LANL, and will determine consequences/corrective actions as dictated by the findings of our investigation.”

The report recommended immediate changes at the lab to strengthen its oversight and reviews of how nuclear waste is handled before resuming those activities.

“Immediate action is necessary to ensure that these matters are addressed and fully resolved before [transuranic] waste operations are resumed, or, for that matter, before future mixed radioactive hazardous waste operations are initiated,” the inspector general’s report said.

The lab failed to follow the Energy Department’s directions about safe processing of nitrate salt waste, and “contractor officials failed to ensure that changes to waste treatment procedures were properly documented, reviewed and approved, and that they incorporated all environmental requirements for [transuranic] waste processing,” according to the report.

Absent these breaches in standards, the inspector general found the radiation leak at WIPP could have been avoided.

“Had LANL followed Department direction and provided appropriate [subject matter expert] reviews, it likely would have determined that the changes to its procedures would result in the introduction of potentially incompatible materials to the waste stream,” the report said.

Careful review of the potential dangers of adding organic kitty litter to a known oxidizer such as nitrate salts would have turned up Environmental Protection Agency recommendations that warn against it, the report said.

“Disposing of oxidizers by mixing them with organic solvents is generally recognized as inherently hazardous,” according to the 2000 EPA case study cited in the report.

Clay-based kitty litter traditionally has been used to absorb liquid contained in transuranic waste to make it acceptable for placement in WIPP, but EnergySolutions switched to a wheat-based brand with no objection from lab officials, according to emails between the contractor and lab officials last year that were made public by the New Mexico Environment Department.

Waste content supervisors at LANL similarly overlooked the potential for incompatibility of an acid neutralizer when they allowed it to be added to the waste.

“Although required, LANL and Department officials acknowledged that a review of chemical ingredients for the neutralizers was not performed and that a weakness in the control process for the Procedure change had occurred,” the report said. However, it notes that chemical analysis to date “does not indicate that the neutralizer is the sole mechanism that could explain the radiological release incident at WIPP.”

In July, LANL officials revealed that a lead-contaminated glove was left in the mix during the treatment of waste in the drum ruptured at WIPP, and investigators are reviewing whether it played a part in the chemical reaction that caused the radiation leak.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an independent organization that monitors the lab, said, “This report is very clear about what LANL should have known. It’s very clear about how LANL violated specific instructions in preparing this waste and failed to use either its own experts or experts that were already working on WIPP waste whose job was to check the safety of this waste.”

Mello said the inspector general’s report is particularly troubling in light of other identified safety concerns at the lab as it readies to embark on a new mission sure to create a new generation of caustic waste.

Seismic worries shut down the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility in 2010 and Plutonium Facility 4 last year. Within the next decade, the Department of Defense, Congress and the National Nuclear Safety Administration want LANL to begin producing replacement plutonium pits — small bombs within nuclear weapons that trigger their detonation — for the existing national nuclear stockpile at a rate not seen since the Cold War ended a quarter-century ago.

Mello worries that the lab’s proposed new mission would generate even more waste, even as some legacy waste from the nation’s last round of steady nuclear weapons production still awaits entombment at WIPP.

“All of LANL’s nuclear facilities will eventually have to be torn down, and they will be contaminated,” he said. “Where are they going to go?”

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


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