Tracing waste drum’s journey from LANL to leak

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Posted: Saturday, June 7, 2014 11:50 pm | Updated: 10:04 am, Wed Jun 11, 2014.

On the night of Feb. 14, a mix of chemicals inside a container of radioactive waste in an underground salt cavern in Southern New Mexico created so much heat the drum’s lid cracked. Radiation leaked out. Heavy bags of magnesium oxide stacked on top of the containers to prevent leaks shifted and disintegrated from the force of the reaction.

A small amount of radiation made its way through filters and an air vent to the ground above the excavated salt bed. An alarm sounded at 11:14 p.m. that night, and the handful of employees at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad were quickly evacuated and tested for radiation exposure. Officials said 21 tested positive, but none at dangerous levels.

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  • Jennifer Bizzarro posted at 4:07 pm on Wed, Jun 11, 2014.

    Jennifer_Bizzarro Posts: 481

    Who are all these unnamed commenters?

  • Jennifer Bizzarro posted at 4:05 pm on Wed, Jun 11, 2014.

    Jennifer_Bizzarro Posts: 481

    who are you, Vern?

  • Leo Ortiz posted at 8:08 am on Tue, Jun 10, 2014.

    lobo04 Posts: 2

    In general, are people safe to live and work in Los Alamos based on the contents of this article? This is radiation we are talking about here; something that doesn't decay for millions of years and can cause significant long-term biological problems to humans and living organisms. I saw the Chernobyl Diaries and this raised a flag for me.

  • Vern posted at 11:56 pm on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    Vern Posts: 3

    The description of what happened, in this article, was well downplayed. Visual evidence suggests a possible hydrogen fire melted numerous magnesium oxide sacks. The investigation needs to involve the removal of the waste containers between the waste face and the ruptured barrel. Then that barrel needs to be removed for a thorough forensic analysis.

    The type of radioactive waste that WIPP is licensed to take is transuranic (TRU) waste that is primarily laced with the isotope plutonium-239. This kind of waste requires isolation from the biosphere for about a half-million years. WIPP is licensed to isolate it for 10,000 years via a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation.

    WIPP is part of the deferred solution to the U.S. nuclear waste problem. The TRU, that WIPP had been accepting, is a product of the vast arsenal of nuclear weapons that the U.S. has been producing for the last 75 years.

    Weapons grade plutonium, at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) that was intended to be converted into MOX reactor fuel, has been down-blended and shipped to WIPP as TRU. Some of those drums are listed as being in the same area as the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) drum that ruptured. The U.S. inventory of TRU waste exceeds the capacity of WIPP which is already near full capacity. In the northern section of the mine research was underway to determine if the salt formation can hold the defense high-level radioactive (HRW) that was originally destined to be buried at the Yucca Mountain repository which failed to be approved for development into a disposal operation.

    Due to this unexpected leak the facility may never be able to accept more TRU waste. Various U.S. States have legally binding agreements to remove that waste from the source facilities by specific dates. Those agreements are likely to be broken due to the predicted extended closure of WIPP.


  • StaciMatlock posted at 5:22 pm on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    StaciMatlock Posts: 17 Staff

    Thanks Carl. Wasn't familiar with case you mentioned.

  • Carl Willis posted at 4:09 pm on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    Carl Willis Posts: 1

    Thanks for an interesting and well-researched article. What I find particularly uncomfortable about this WIPP leak scenario is its close parallels to some previous accidents, particularly the disastrous 1957 explosion of waste tanks at the Mayak plant north of Chelyabinsk (the "Kyshtym disaster"), that were occasioned by improper mixing of nitrates with oxidizable organic material. This is an elementary chemical compatibility issue, and if the lessons of Kyshtym aren't being integrated into the formal procedures and the situational awareness relating to this modern waste disposal project, we've got a serious systematic problem.

  • Charlene Montoya posted at 3:00 pm on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    NMLOBO1984 Posts: 12

    The New Mexico State Police used to monitor those trucks day and night until someone decided it wasn't nessary anymore. When the NMSP stopped I saw Don Hancock on the news and he wasn't happy about the monitoring being stopped by the state. can you imagine if one of those trucks were to get in an accident or high jacked? not many people commented on it though not until there was a real accident luckily it was at the WIPP site and not on US84/285 or in Santa Fe.

  • Sommer Karnes posted at 1:14 pm on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    Sommer Karnes Posts: 3

    The line you cite of the WSPF is referencing the facility audit, not an audit of the particular waste stream.

  • StaciMatlock posted at 11:40 am on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    StaciMatlock Posts: 17 Staff

    True, Chris. But journalists try not to rely on only one source. Hancock knows his stuff, but we needed to back up his knowledge with actual documents from LANL, EnergySolutions and WIPP, all of which NMED has posted as a public service on the department's website.

  • StaciMatlock posted at 11:39 am on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    StaciMatlock Posts: 17 Staff

    Hi Francisco,
    We are working to answer your question. Stay tuned for a story down the road.

  • StaciMatlock posted at 11:37 am on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    StaciMatlock Posts: 17 Staff

    According to the document CCP-TP-002 on the NMED website:
    The CCP Waste Stream Profile Form, for LA-MIN02-V.001
    #6. Date of audit report approval by NMED: April 18, 2013
    That may not mean NMED performed an actual physical audit, but the department reviewed and signed off on the audit report. That had little if anything to do with the problem container, though since the audit was for the entire waste stream.
    Does it indicate, though, the need for better communication between EnergySolutions and NMED regarding the procedures for packing individual containers?

  • Leslie Barnard posted at 8:58 am on Mon, Jun 9, 2014.

    zabba Posts: 10

    "Federal investigators looking into the leak, as well a truck that caught fire inside WIPP two weeks before the leak, also have said the safety culture at WIPP had eroded."
    Please keep us informed of the changes being made to change the "safety culture at WIPP, how extensive the leak really is and efforts to mitigate the situation. I realize it's quite small in comparison to the Fukushima disaster but it's still a local threat and needs to be monitored by the media so there isn't the cover-up that often occurs when government tends to try to keep operations/communications insular.

  • Stan posted at 3:35 pm on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    Stan Posts: 4

    Very Interesting, fact based, non political explanation of what is going on with an important matter with potentialy serious repercussions for all.

  • Joe Savoldi posted at 11:06 am on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    joesavoldi Posts: 20

    Any mention of radioactivity always brings out the sky-is-falling crowd. They take great pleasure from the feeling of wholesomeness they get when there appears to be a reason for their existence. These friends of the earth make their living off grievances and I've come to the conclusion that they actually believe they are saving the planet. Writers like Matlock of course exploit the exaggerated fears of radioactivity to sell newspapers. Their understanding of the subject is zero.
    In terms of quantifiable risk, the waste at Los Alamos is very low compared to driving on our highways; Or many other seemingly minor risks of turning into worm food. I think Santa Fe and other cities should prohibit gasoline trucks from going through them. Imagine the consequences of one of those behemoths exploding at Cerrillos and St Francis?.......Free Tibet....Save the whale....

  • Chris Mechels posted at 10:11 am on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    Chris Mechels Posts: 70

    This piece could have benefited from a lot more Don Hancock, and less filler. Don "owns" this WIPP issue, and knows its troubled history cold.

  • Sommer Karnes posted at 8:15 am on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    Sommer Karnes Posts: 3

    Staci, This is a good article but you got some facts wrong. The Environment Department has never audited that waste stream.

  • Greg Mello posted at 8:05 am on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    Greg Mello Posts: 17

    Great article. Let us hope more follow!

    Folks do not yet understand that LANL is still producing radioactive waste and expects to do so indefinitely, or that until recently all of LANL's "low-level" waste was disposed on site and in the future much of it will likely be also.

    Four large new areas at LANL are reserved to become future nuclear waste dumps.

    No cleanup is planned for most LANL radioactive waste, so the myth of “cleanup” has not been dispelled. The reasons it has taken so long to get this waste off the Hill is the same reason LANL hopes to produce millions of pounds of future waste while ramping up as a factory for new kinds of nuclear weapons. There is no real purpose for this other than churning the stockpile and keeping LANL and its equally greedy fraternal twin in Livermore busy, as well as the other weapons plants -- busy replacing weapons that are not wearing out and do not need replacement.

    The New Mexican is right to focus on this mistake in part because it shows such mistakes are not something we can relegate to the bad old days. Accidents happen, and can have severe consequences, especially to workers. LANL’s plutonium facility has been partly shut down for a year now because the possibility of accidental criticality can't be ruled out. LANL seeks billions to expand plutonium processing, unnecessarily.

    Plutonium blights.

  • Francisco Carbajal posted at 7:08 am on Sun, Jun 8, 2014.

    FranciscoCarbajal Posts: 222

    Again, now this WIPP story is out with some more details about what happens from the angle of transporting the radioactive materials in drums from LANL to the Carlsbad site. So, what happens with the other DOE transportation procedures from the other DOE sites (i.e., Rocky Flats, Oakridge, Pantex, etc.) who handle process or non-process radioactive material items to the WIPP location in NM? Is our local, state, and federal emergency management system in place to handle in an event of an transportation incident on our Interstate Highway System or not? I assume that not all DOE transportation units participate in the marked TRUPACK containers and armed escorts process. Would it be safe to say that the DOE people have other contractors or subcontractors who transport radioactive material in un-label or un-marked tractor-trailers on NM Highways daily without police escorts, etc.? Recently, Santa Fe had a DUI suspect hit a tractor-trailer who was parked on Interstate 25/Cerrillos exit with loaded drums of serious chemicals (some type of hazardous material - Acid) without an explosion. How lucky that these drums did not burst, yet, if the scenario would of change to the worst, could the local first responder's handle the haz-mat material if the containers in the barrels would of been radioactive material instead? [scared]


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