New Mexico’s top environmental regulator lashed out at the U.S. Department of Energy this week, accusing it of impeding the state’s investigation into the circumstances that led to a radiation leak earlier this year at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
During his keynote speech to an audience representing federal agencies, industry, academia, national labs and all levels of government at the annual Radwaste Summit in Summerlin, Nev., New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn warned that Los Alamos National Laboratory and WIPP could face steeper sanctions from the state because of what he characterized as Energy Department roadblocks that have protracted the probe.
“The problem is that Department of Energy headquarters back in Washington, D.C., is looking at this situation through a political or [public relations] lens, so they’ve put a noose around the scientific personnel who can answer our questions and move this process along,” Flynn told The New Mexican.
On Feb. 14, a drum of nuclear waste that originated at Los Alamos burst at WIPP, the nation’s only below-ground repository for waste generated during decades of Cold War nuclear weapons production. The cause of the chemical reaction that triggered the drum to rupture remains under investigation by several federal agencies and the New Mexico Environment Department, which holds permitting authority over both LANL and WIPP. WIPP has ceased receiving waste indefinitely since the release.
Increasingly in recent weeks, the federal Energy Department has thwarted attempts by the state Environment Department to gather information for its investigation, according to Flynn. Six weeks ago, at a legislative hearing in Los Alamos, Flynn lauded LANL’s cooperation with the state investigation into the radiation leak, including the lab’s confession to treating the suspected drum without a permit, a process that left behind a lead-laden glove that’s being eyed as a contributing factor in the leak. On Friday, Flynn accused the Energy Department of muzzling scientists with crucial information about the waste stream.
He said at times during the state’s investigation into the leak, LANL personnel have provided “outstanding communication” about the possible cause of the radiation release. But when the Environment Department has asked for documentation supporting the scientists’ observations, the Energy Department has repeatedly refused to provide it.
“During those positive meetings, information will be referenced, and there’s a willingness [by LANL personnel] to provide information that’s referenced during those meetings or presentations,” Flynn said. “After those meetings, information gets communicated up the chain of command and someone back at [Energy] headquarters decides that no, they’re not going to provide that information to the state.”
Flynn said his frustration with the Energy Department grew as its denials of his department’s requests for information became more frequent.
“When it happens once, it’s not really a big deal. When you start noticing a pattern and it happens repeatedly, that’s when you start to get really concerned,” he said. “You’d have to ask Department of Energy headquarters why they don’t provide certain information and why they don’t make staff available. It would be interesting to know how many people need to sign off before someone at Los Alamos National Laboratory can return a phone call to me or one of my staffers.”
A Los Alamos spokesman referred questions to Energy Department officials on Friday.
In a written statement responding to Flynn’s criticisms, a department spokesperson said: “The department is fully committed to reopening WIPP, and will continue to work with the state of New Mexico to do so safely and as expeditiously as possible.”
Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog organization Los Alamos Study Group, echoed Flynn’s angst that the Energy Department hasn’t openly shared details with regulators about the radiation leak and the waste suspected of causing it.
“Anything else is a sign of a poor safety culture and could be a danger signal for workers and the public,” Mello said. “Mislabeling drums and withholding information can be criminal. That’s one way serious accidents can happen.”
Already, regulatory penalties from the state are likely for both Los Alamos and WIPP, according to Flynn. Potential penalties range from fines to suspension of operations at the sites.
At Los Alamos, treating waste without a permit and labeling waste as less volatile than it actually is, then shipping it to WIPP are among the violations already identified, and WIPP, at a minimum, faces regulatory action for failing to verify the volatility of the waste before accepting it.
“The more we investigate, the more we’re discovering at Los Alamos,” Flynn said.
The state’s first sanctions against the permit-holders could be meted out within the next 60 days, Flynn said. Regulatory actions against LANL and WIPP are likely to be imposed in a series of steps, as each of the violations is verified.
The Energy Department’s reticence to cooperate could lead to stiffer penalties, Flynn said.
“When you’re less responsive, you’re making us have to work and fight just to get information we need in order to our job,” he said. “We’re less likely to provide them with any type of a downward adjustment or credit for being upfront. We won’t do it.”
The Energy Department’s refusal to provide information raised suspicions among Flynn’s investigators, and regaining their trust will be difficult, he said.
“It takes time in order to establish credibility, and you do that by being upfront, by being candid and by answering questions. It takes time to establish credibility, and it can be lost in an instant,” he said. “And the Department of Energy headquarters refuses to provide certain information. Withholding information from our staff, for whatever reason, that really erodes their credibility.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.