Vol. 36 No. 24 • Sep 11, 2015
LANL Acknowledges Hazardous Waste Permit Noncompliance
The Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has voluntarily acknowledged that it had
breached the terms of its hazardous waste permit with the state of New Mexico.
Laboratory Director Charles McMillan and National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Field Office
Manager Kimberly Davis Lebak noted multiple “instances of non-compliance” in an Aug. 31 letter to state
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. They said the issues came to light during a review of waste management
procedures after a container of processed transuranic waste that originated at LANL in February 2014 leaked a
small amount of radiation while in storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“These non-compliances resulted from processing other legacy mixed transuranic (MTRU) wastes under the same
procedures that have been determined to be deficient and were used to remediate the nitrate salt-bearing waste
stream associated with the WIPP incident,” according to the letter. LANL and NNSA personnel have determined
that the permit breaches do not constitute credible safety hazards to workers at the laboratory or health threats to
the public or environment, the officials wrote.
The violations involved four different waste streams produced by LANL operations: drummed debris waste,
oversized box debris waste, inorganic wastewater treatment sludge, and cemented waste. Among the acts of
noncompliance, according to a report attached to the officials’ letter, were “unpermitted treatment by use of
absorbents in an impermissible manner; unpermitted treatment by neutralization; mixing potentially incompatible
materials with waste in containers; and … failure to manage and label waste containers, and meet generator
requirements for off-site transportation of potentially ignitable (D001) and corrosive (D002) hazardous wastes
(LA-CIN01).” Just over 1,000 containers fell into one of these non-compliance areas, the report says.
LANL’s review of packaging processes and contents records for thousands of waste containers found 440
receptacles in which transuranic waste mixed with concrete could hold materials that could be corrosive or ignite,
the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) said in a statement. However, the “cemented configuration” of
those materials are both significantly different from and more stable than the material involved in the WIPP
incident, NMED said.
In that case, nitrate salts produced by LANL operations were combined with an organic cat litter in hundreds of
containers sent to WIPP for permanent storage. One container burst, and the radiation leak forced WIPP to shut
down storage operations while it carried out an extensive, yet-unfinished, remediation program.
The 440 containers cited in the LANL/NNSA report “have been conservatively assigned D001 and D002 waste
codes and they are subject to the storage requirements for corrosive or ignitable waste until further testing can be
completed. The New Mexico Environment Department is requiring LANL to implement corrective actions to
address all identified permit violations and any other NMED-regulated issues identified in the Extent of Condition
Review,” said NMED Resource Protection Division Director Kathryn Roberts in a prepared statement.
Details of the corrective actions were not immediately available. McMillan and Lebak said LANL has taken a
number of steps to prevent further permit breaches, including suspension of processing of transuranic and mixed
transuranic waste and collaborative efforts with NMED.
One longtime LANL watchdog suggested the state of New Mexico should not be satisfied with the federal
response to the latest permit breaches.
“Having violated its operating permit in these newly-disclosed ways, LANL assures NMED that there is really no
harm in these latest admissions. This is an interesting approach to regulation -- we ignore our operating permit,
then tell you about it after we do the analyses that assure you it was really safe all along so no enforcement action
is necessary, Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said by email.
He suggested that the $73 million DOE settlement with the state over the WIPP incident might actually prohibit
New Mexico officials from taking enforcement action over the latest developments. According to the agreement,
“NMED agrees to refrain from taking any enforcement action against the DOE Permittees, their constituent
agencies, contractors and affiliates for any violations identified in the triennial reviews so long as the DOE
Permittees and their facility operators correct any deficiencies identified in the course of such reviews.”
“The state appears to have gotten less than nothing from that previous negotiation with DOE,” Mello stated. “Even
if penalties were still possible for these newly-disclosed violations, will the state enforce?”