Los Alamos National Laboratory will indefinitely postpone a project that would release radioactive vapors into the atmosphere because staff needed for the task are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lab had planned to ventilate four containers of tritium-tainted waste April 17 to relieve built-up radioactive hydrogen in the barrels’ headspace to prevent them from rupturing while they are being handled or shipped. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the application for the radioactive release last year.

But some workers required to vent the containers, which each hold 50 gallons of waste generated during the Cold War, are working off-site as part of the lab’s effort to practice social distancing, according to National Nuclear Security Administration officials.

“To ensure safety, we need a full complement of staff, some of whom are currently working from home,” agency spokeswoman Toni Chiri said, adding the release will be done when the needed staff members return to working on-site.

Watchdog organizations that had expressed concerns about discharging the radioactive vapors cheered the delay and said the project should be scrapped.

“We’re pleased that LANL is postponing its massive radioactive tritium release, particularly as northern New Mexico braces for the coronavirus pandemic,” Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in a statement. “But postponement is not the answer. Since tritium decays so rapidly into harmless helium the lab should simply sit on it instead of putting the population at risk.”

Tritium is a radioactive hydrogen isotope and is found, both in natural and human-made forms, in water, soil and the atmosphere. It is generally only harmful when ingested in high doses in food and water, and it can increase the risk of cancer in some people, according to the Health Physics Society.

However, some medical research groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences, contend any amount of radiation exposure can risk damaging tissues, cells and DNA, potentially causing genetic mutations, birth defects and cancer.

The tritium in the four waste drums adds up to roughly 114,000 curies of radiation. A curie is a unit of radioactivity equal to what a gram of radium emits.

The lab’s EPA application states high-efficiency particulate air filters and other equipment would significantly reduce the tritium if it is released, though it couldn’t say by how much.

Lab officials have said they would release no more than 8 millirems, staying within the EPA’s yearly limit of 10 millirems for the site. A millirem measures radiation exposure.

They had planned to ventilate one or two barrels per week. If the EPA limit was reached before all barrels were ventilated, then they would finish the remaining barrels next year.

Bemnet Alemayehu, a radiation health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said as long as the lab keeps the release below 10 millirems, it should pose no hazard to the public.

“However, the release should be controlled and monitored to avoid any uncontrolled release risks,” he said.

A Native American advocacy group contends any tritium release could pose health hazards to Pueblo people and others who live near the lab.

“We live 20 minutes away from these planned releases, and now in addition to an already stressful self-quarantine, I need to worry about my family being outside enjoying their birthright,” said Beata Tsosie-Peña, program coordinator for Tewa Women United.

The group is happy the release has been postponed but will push to have it halted altogether, Tsosie-Pena said.

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