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The Energy Daily
(behind paywall -- reprinted here by permission)

July 22, 2014

Los Alamos admits ‘potential’ permit violations on WIPP waste drums

BY GEORGE LOBSENZ

Amid continued radio silence from federal and state officials on the issue, Los Alamos National Laboratory has disclosed “potential” permit violations in its processing of nitrate salt-bearing radioactive waste drums sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. However, the Energy Department nuclear weapons facility says there is “insufficient information” to determine if those noncompliances caused the suspected chemical reaction that led one of those drums to burst and release radioactivity February 14 at DOE’s waste disposal repository.

In a July 1 letter to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), Los Alamos said it had changed the processing method in August 2012 by using an organic absorbent material—identified as a wheat-based kitty litter—to soak up liquids in the drums so they would meet waste acceptance criteria set by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) limiting free liquids in waste drums placed in the underground repository.

The substitution of the organic kitty litter for the previously used inorganic clay-based absorbent has been a focus of speculation as a potentially important contributing factor in the suspected chemical reaction that breached one nitrate salt-bearing waste drum stored in WIPP, resulting in the first release of radioactivity from WIPP in its 15 years of operation.

Federal and state officials have suggested that the organic kitty litter material reacted with chemical agents added to some Los Alamos nitrate salt-bearing drums to neutralize highly acidic or alkaline wastes, which are highly corrosive. There also have been suggestions that the neutralizing agents should not been added to the drums because some of the mixed transuranic and hazardous wastes were incompatible with the neutralizing agents used when the nitrate salt-bearing wastes were repackaged in new drums for shipment to WIPP.

Los Alamos appeared to acknowledge in the July 1 letter to NMED that the changes in its processing procedure for certain nitrate salt-bearing wastes were significant enough to require permitting review, and thus did not qualify for certain permitting exemptions granted by NMED to the lab.

The letter also seemed to suggest that Los Alamos workers failed to properly recognize that the nitrate salt-bearing wastes not only were corrosive, but had other hazardous waste characteristics that warranted further review of the neutralization process used when highly acidic and alkaline liquid wastes were found in some drums.

“The permittees conclude that the processing of the unconsolidated nitrate salt-bearing waste drums…falls outside the permit exemptions for treatment activities required by NMED rules…,” Los Alamos said in the letter.

“The processing of the nitrate salt-bearing waste involved adding neutralizing agents to a waste stream and did not qualify for the elementary neutralization permit exemption because this waste stream was assigned multiple [Environmental Protection Agency-designated hazardous waste characteristics] and was not a hazardous waste solely due to the corrosivity characteristics or listing.”

The letter also referred to the adding of absorbent to soak up free liquids in the drums, but did not point to the change to the organic kitty litter absorbent as the potential noncompliance with NMED rules. Rather, Los Alamos said the noncompliance involved adding the absorbent during the repackaging of the waste into new drums, and the locations in the drums [I think this should be "locations, i.e. drums"] where the absorbent was placed.

“The second step of the nitrate salt-bearing waste processing involved the addition of absorbents in some deviating locations…that do not appear to meet the permit exception that absorbent be added ‘the first time’ the waste is placed in a ‘container.’

“For these reasons, the permittees conclude that the processing of the remediated nitrate salt-bearing wastes constituted a noncompliance that resulted in unpermitted treatment.”

Los Alamos also said it may have violated permit requirements that it re-evaluate composition of wastes whenever there is a change in the waste-generating process or when testing shows a change in wastes. In this case, Los Alamos noted that initial characterization of the legacy nitrate salt-bearing wastes occurred in the early 1990s and that lab workers should have reviewed that historical knowledge base after testing showed the wastes included free liquids, including some that were highly acidic.

“Based on those analytical results, the permittees conclude they had an obligation to re-evaluate the unconsolidated nitrate salt-bearing waste to assess the accuracy of the initial waste characterization in accordance with permit [requirements],” the lab said.

While acknowledging the potential violations of its permit—which appear to conform with the leading theory as to why the one nitrate salt-bearing waste drum burst at WIPP—the Los Alamos letter suggests the violations may not have caused the accident.

“At this time, there is insufficient information to conclude that these noncompliances relate to the radioactive release at WIPP,” the lab told NMED, without elaborating.

That statement comes amid general assertions by state and federal officials in various media reports that Los Alamos and a special DOE investigatory team have not been able to pinpoint the cause of the burst drum, despite hundreds of experiments aimed at replicating the suspected chemical reaction that caused the drum to overheat.

Notably, Los Alamos site inspectors with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent federal agency that oversees safety at DOE sites, said in a June 27 memo to DNFSB headquarters that Los Alamos had conducted more than 700 experiments and that Los Alamos senior management had released some of the results of those experiments to the DOE investigatory team and another DOE board investigating the WIPP accident.

The memo also said Los Alamos management had appointed a team to “perform a causal analysis to evaluate processing problems that resulted in a potentially non-compliant drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” The memo said that team would provide results by July 31.

Some Los Alamos watchdog groups have expressed skepticism about the assertions that Los Alamos and DOE remain uncertain about the cause of the burst WIPP drum, saying the use of organic kitty litter in the drums clearly introduced reactivity dangers given the composition of some chemical agents used in the waste neutralization process. Among other indicators of the risks involved in the use of organic absorbents—which can act as fuel for chemical reactions—they note that Los Alamos processing guidelines for nitrate salt-bearing wastes clearly specify the use of inorganic clay-based absorbent in waste drums headed for WIPP.

The critics also suggest the official silence about the cause of the WIPP accident is designed to give Los Alamos and federal and state officials time and wiggle room to determine how to proceed on enforcement actions related to the WIPP accident.

The critics further suggest that Los Alamos improperly authorized the use of absorbents and neutralizers to speed up the processing of waste drums to meet a June 30, 2014, deadline set by a cleanup agreement the lab had with New Mexico to remove 3,706 barrels of mixed transuranic and hazardous waste from above-ground storage facilities at Los Alamos that were deemed vulnerable to forest fire risks. The drums were to be sent to WIPP for disposal.

The critics say New Mexico officials pushed hard for Los Alamos to meet the deadline so they could score political points by appearing to be forcing cleanup of the lab. The critics also note that bonuses for Los Alamos executives were tied to meeting the June 30 deadline—which was not met when the WIPP accident occurred, forcing indefinite shutdown of the repository until it is decontaminated and the cause of the bursting drum is verified and resolved.


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