Missteps and secrets: Lab officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak

A close-up photo of an unsealed waste container from LANL was taken May 22 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. File photo / courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

The New Mexico Environment Department is preparing to levy more fines against Los Alamos National Laboratory that would dwarf the already steep penalties the lab faces for its role in last year’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The threat to impose more fines could give the state leverage in ongoing negotiations over the $54.3 million in fines assessed so far against the U.S. Department of Energy and its private contractors that operate LANL and WIPP.

“We were conservative in the fines we assessed. There’s really, from my perspective, very little negotiating room in terms of a downward adjustment of the fines we assessed,” Flynn told The New Mexican after testifying before the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

He said the second round of fines against Los Alamos’ state-issued operating permit could carry amounts much higher than the combined total of the penalties both nuclear sites currently face.

On Feb. 14, 2014, a drum of waste from Los Alamos ruptured after being stored nearly a half-mile underground at WIPP, the nation’s only below-ground repository for Cold War-era waste from nuclear weapons production. Temperatures in the chamber that housed the burst drum reached nearly 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Radiation released during the explosion contaminated WIPP and escaped from the ancient salt cavern, a waste site designed to never leak. The incident brought shipments of waste to a halt for what could be years, stranding drums filled with toxic materials at Los Alamos and other national laboratories.

Los Alamos has acknowledged that it violated some conditions of its state permit in its handling of the waste packed into the drum that ruptured at WIPP. The lab confessed to mislabeling the waste by failing to report important details about its volatile mix of ingredients, which are being eyed as contributing factors in the chemical reaction that caused the drum to burst.

Namely, the lab’s formal description of the waste did not mention the highly acidic nature of the nuclear waste, the organic variety of kitty litter that may have fueled the reaction at WIPP and the presence of an acid neutralizer. Just using the neutralizer constituted “treatment of waste,” a step that went beyond the bounds of the lab’s permit from the state.

In all, the state Environment Department cited the lab with 24 violations in December that resulted in $36.6 million in proposed fines. The department also identified 13 violations at WIPP, including accepting the mishandled waste from LANL, resulting in more than $17 million in proposed fines.

The U.S. Energy Department is contesting the fines on behalf of LANL, WIPP and the private contractors it pays to operate them. In documents responding to the state’s actions, lawyers for the Energy Department challenged the Environment Department’s legal authority to oversee the federal agency’s operations. Flynn said he is confident that the state would prevail if a court has to decide the case.

The next series of potential fines relates to missteps that the lab has admitted to the Environment Department, errors similar to those for which the state already has fined the lab but involving separate batches of waste. In reports to the Environment Department, the lab confessed to faulty descriptions and other handling mistakes with those batches of waste as well.

Flynn would not discuss details of the ongoing negotiations with the Energy Department over the penalties the state has proposed. But he said if the Energy Department accepts responsibility for what went wrong at LANL and WIPP by paying the proposed fines, he might be willing to back off the new round of penalties he’s preparing to impose on Los Alamos’ permit.

“If they’re obstinate or they’re not highly motivated to move forward and do what’s right, then we will absolutely proceed aggressively, defend these claims in court and proceed with additional compliance orders,” Flynn said.

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com.