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For Immediate Release October 1, 2014

DOE Inspector General releases scathing report about LANL’s incompetent handling of waste, leading to WIPP shutdown

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque, NM – Today the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General (IG) released a scathing “Management Alert” from their investigation into the role of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in causing the contamination and shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). 

The Los Alamos Study Group filed a detailed formal request with the DOE IG to investigate these issues on July 15, 2014.  Today’s IG report is partly responsive to that request. 

After noting that a LANL-created drum burst at WIPP, causing significant impacts not just at WIPP but at transuranic (TRU) waste generating sites around the country, the DOE IG found that:

  • Despite specific direction to the contrary, LANL made procedural changes that did not conform to DOE technical guidance.

  • LANL and its subcontractors mixed “potentially incompatible materials” to chemically-hazardous TRU waste that contained oxidizers (nitrate salts), namely organic absorbents (organic kitty litter and before that, organic polymer) as well as certain acid neutralizers. 

  • LANL’s waste processing and safety control procedures were inadequate, leading to the creation of mixtures which were “inherently hazardous.” 

  • LANL “did not consider readily available information on chemical reactions,” including an EPA case study on mixing oxidizers with organic or combustible materials which noted that “common references” warn against such mixtures. 

  • LANL somehow added the “organic” to the description of acceptable absorbent, violating recent (2012) detailed DOE/LANL/WIPP guidance for this particular waste stream.  LANL didn’t run its procedures past subject matter experts or the WIPP team that was set up to resolve issues with difficult waste streams such as this one.  Neither did LANL consult with its own safety organizations.  Instead, LANL’s review was focused on compliance with environmental permits alone. 

  • Yet, [oddly,] LANL had halted processing of this waste stream in 2012 “because of the possible dangers of mixing organic materials with nitrates,” [suggesting that at least some LANL managers as well as other people in the waste program understood these dangers]. 

  • LANL also approved the use of an acid neutralizer that included an ingredient that was “highly reactive” with oxidizers and therefore “potentially incompatible with nitrate salts stored in the drums.”  This neutralizer was added to “the majority of drums” in this waste stream.

  • According to LANL’s permit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), waste processing should have stopped if the waste involved was a hazardous waste for multiple reasons (was “assigned multiple EPA hazardous waste codes”). 

  • LANL has subsequently “tentatively” reclassified hundreds of drums as potentially ignitable and/or corrosive, “which may pose previously unrecognized safety issues.”[1]

The IG also made recommendations for immediate steps DOE and LANL could take to improve TRU waste at LANL.  These recommendations were accepted in detail by Frank Klotz, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on behalf of DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, to whom the Alert was sent. 

The DOE’s Accident Investigation Board is expected to complete its own review of the WIPP incident before the end of the year.    

Study Group director Greg Mello was the first state hazardous waste official to inspect LANL, in 1984.  Mello: “We are pleased that this report correctly identifies the central role of LANL in causing the contamination and shutdown of WIPP, which DOE now estimates to last about two years and cost up to one-half billion dollars or more.  That will be the minimum.  Expensive operational limitations are likely at WIPP henceforth.   

“The violations of established well-procedures and lack of common chemical knowledge are shocking.  The report, as well as other information available to the Study Group, describe an insular, stove-piped, highly-bureaucratized corporate culture that did not access or use its own technical expertise or that of others.

“The IG report hints at, but does not discuss, the knowledge LANL had about the dangers of mixing organic materials with nitrate salt waste drums.   LANL halted processing these drums over just this issue, but inexplicably resumed in August 2012, mixing finely-divided organic material with a witch’s brew of unknown nitrate salts and acids, by the pallet-load. 

“The IG report is silent about what LANL knew when.  Did LANL know about the dangers of mixing and shipping what the DOE IG correctly calls “inherently hazardous” combinations of chemicals, which “common references” warn against?  Was LANL rushing to meet its June 30 deadline for the sake of profits and incentive pay?

“The IG report is also silent about accountability for this huge fiasco.  Will the for-profit private company that manages LANL, LANS, be forced to pay for any of the hundreds of millions of dollars that these failures have cost the taxpayers?  Will LANS be awarded another year of managing LANL as if nothing happened, with no actual penalty except a few million dollars less profit?  Indeed will LANS be able to keep its contract at all, in the face of this incompetence and the resulting tremendous costs, the full scope of which is as yet unknown? 

“LANL has admitted violating its operating permit.  Under RCRA, the person who must be held responsible for this is the managing director of the site, Charlie McMillan.  Is LANS so powerful that Dr. McMillan is now above responsibility for “petty” matters like waste management? 

“NNSA’s response to this report is very far from adequate.  It basically consists of adding more bureaucratic complexity and rules, instead of actually using the management tools available to NNSA.  The LANS contract needs to be renegotiated, at a minimum.  If NNSA’s response to this incident continues the “forward-looking” approach of the DOE IG, and ignores accountability, it will only be a short time before LANS produces another fiasco, something this contractor is now doing on a regular basis.” 

Suggestions for NNSA laboratory management reform can be found here: LASG comments to the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL), Sep 26, 2014.

See also "New Mexico TRU: "Study Group Calls for Pause in New Plutonium Waste at Los Alamos, press release, Jun 2, 2014.


[1] On August 29, New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary Ryan Flynn directed LANL to resume daily monitoring of the potentially explosive gases which have been building up in two containers at LANL stored at Area G near White Rock, NM.  LANL had inexplicably halted daily monitoring despite knowing that hydrogen levels in one of the containers had reached 70% of the lower explosive limit (LEL).  See “Gas buildup in waste drum prompts state order to Los Alamos,” George Lobsenz, Energy Daily, 9/26/14.

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