The head of Los Alamos National Laboratory issued a memo to employees Monday condemning a story published Sunday in The New Mexican that exposed missteps at the lab that had played a part in a WIPP radiation leak. The story also addressed efforts to downplay the dangers of LANL transuranic waste that had been sent to the nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad.
The newspaper’s investigation, which took six months and included interviews and a review of thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, found that LANL documents provided to Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials and regulators about the waste drum’s contents failed to mention several components: organic kitty litter, the unusually high acidity of the waste and a pH neutralizer. Now, those components are being eyed as possible factors in the chemical reaction that caused a LANL drum to burst, leading to the radiation leak.
On Feb. 14, when the drum ruptured inside the underground storage facility, more than 20 workers were exposed to radiation. The plant has not reopened since, stranding thousands of barrels of waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production at national labs throughout the country. Fully reopening WIPP is expected to take up to five years and cost at least $550 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Over the weekend, many of you may have read a story in the Santa Fe New Mexican suggesting that Los Alamos National Laboratory was hiding scientific theories about the accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” lab Director Charles McMillan wrote in his memo sent to LANL employees just before 5 p.m. Monday. “I want to assure you that nothing is further from the truth.”
According to McMillan’s statement, obtained by The New Mexican, he took aim at a portion of the newspaper report about the lab’s delay in sharing a memo with WIPP personnel that likened the contents of the burst waste drum to explosives. The story reported that a May memo by LANL chemist Steve Clemmons asserted he had determined the waste in the drum that ruptured held the same components as three patented explosives.
“The Lab was very open with the Department of Energy and the Carlsbad Field Office about hypotheses under evaluation, with daily discussions on all efforts to discover the cause of the breach and to ensure the safety and security of the remaining drums,” McMillan wrote in the memo to lab workers Monday.
But emails that were the basis for the news report contradict McMillan’s memo. Those messages, colored at times by outrage from WIPP officials about what they weren’t told by LANL, show that despite daily briefings between WIPP and Los Alamos personnel about the ongoing investigations into the leak, a week passed before WIPP officials learned of Clemmons’ findings about the potentially explosive mixture in the waste.
Officials at WIPP became aware of Clemmons’ memo only after a Department of Energy employee at LANL leaked it to a colleague in Carlsbad, who then shared it with them. The discovery prompted decision-makers at WIPP to postpone a scheduled expedition by employees to collect specimens for scientific testing in the area where the drum burst.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at a watchdog organization, the Southwest Research and Information Center, has read the string of emails about the May memo. He said the story the messages tell is clear: “The LANL people were not being truthful with WIPP and DOE folks in May,” Hancock said. “That’s a problem.”
Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group that monitors the lab, has read the emails and shares Hancock’s opinion that LANL was not as forthcoming with WIPP or the Energy Department as McMillan’s memo suggests.
“The director is trying to protect the morale of the laboratory,” Mello said. “I think it’s wishful thinking. He says the lab was open with the DOE and with WIPP. It wasn’t open, but perhaps by LANL standards it was. LANL openness standards are so opaque that secrecy is normal.”
As reported Sunday in The New Mexican, the lab last week issued a statement that scientific experiments eliminated Clemmons’ findings as the cause of the radiation leak at WIPP.
Other portions of McMillan’s message to lab employees supported findings from the news report. He acknowledged the lab had not accurately documented the contents of the waste drum that ruptured, and that the waste in the drum that burst had been processed at the lab. The addition of neutralizer was not authorized by a permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department.
McMillan’s memo made no mention of a theory discussed in emails that organic kitty litter had been added to the waste as an absorbent — rather than the inorganic clay kitty litter that previously had been used — because of a typographical error in a revision to a manual that instructs workers how to package waste at the lab.
“McMillan’s memo doesn’t mention that this mixture violated basic chemical common sense,” said Mello, a former state environmental inspector whose duties included observing activities at the lab. “Nobody should mix these things — period. You should never mix nitric acid and nitrate salts with any organic fuels.”
Investigators have identified wheat-based kitty litter as a potential fuel in the chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak. The lab began using the organic variety in September 2012.
The month before the switch, a new waste packaging policy that explicitly called for organic litter took effect at the lab. A waste handling expert at WIPP reported in an email to a colleague that a typographical error is believed to have resulted in the change.
The lab has repeatedly refused to publicly say why it switched to organic kitty litter. The lab did not respond Thursday when asked why McMillan’s memo did not address the typo theory.
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.