Los Alamos National Laboratory is taking steps to address the hazards posed by dozens of barrels of radioactive waste mixed with incompatible chemicals, which have the potential to explode.

The lab is responding to a report in October by the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which found the lab had failed to analyze chemicals present in hundreds of containers of transuranic nuclear waste.

Incompatible chemicals could blend together and cause a container to burst, releasing a high level of radiation that would threaten workers and the public, the report said.

That’s what happened in 2014, when a waste container from the Los Alamos lab was packaged in a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts, which caused the container to rupture and spew radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The underground disposal site closed for three years while it underwent a $2 billion cleanup.

So far, lab personnel have identified 29 waste barrels holding potentially volatile mixtures of chemicals.

They will fasten more secure lids on these barrels, pack them in a large container and move it to a storage site with constant air monitoring and the ability to contain radiation, according to a spokesman from the U.S. Energy Department’s environmental management field office in Los Alamos.

“These containers are adequately safeguarded and managed compliantly,” the spokesman wrote in an email.

Lid restraints will prevent the containers from popping open during storage and while in transit, he added. Containers also are vented to keep internal pressure down.

But critics questioned whether these measures were enough.

“It sounds like it’s a slight bit of progress … but that seems to be pretty minimal,” said Dan Hirsch, retired director of environment and nuclear policy programs at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

It’s unclear just how well the lab’s storage dome structure is designed to withstand an exploding waste barrel and contain the radiation, Hirsch said. He noted that in the WIPP incident, radioactive particulates escaped to the outside air by going up elevator shafts and bypassing air-duct filters.

“If you can get stuff released from deep underground with WIPP, I really want to see what this dome is really like in its ability to contain something if there were an explosion,” Hirsch said.

The agencies in charge should conduct thorough analyses on the chemical mixtures in each barrel to determine how explosive they are and how to neutralize the volatile chemicals, he said, adding that would take more work but would be better for the safety of employees and the public.

The federal safety board’s report estimated an exploding waste canister could expose workers to 760 rem, far beyond the threshold of a lethal dose. A rem is a unit used to measure radiation exposure.

Federal guidelines define a lethal dose as high enough to cause 50 percent of people to die within 30 days. Those levels range from 400 to 450 rem.

The 760 rem estimate is equal to 380,000 chest X-rays, Hirsch said.

Given how deadly plutonium can be — inhaling one millionth of an ounce guarantees a person gets cancer — the lab should do everything possible to ensure none of the radioactive materials ever winds up airborne, Hirsch said.

Many of the drums probably have sat around for years, even decades, posing a hazard, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

“It’s an example of nuclear weapons work getting the priority while cleanup and waste management is on the back burner,” Kovac said.

(1) comment

Cynthia Weehler

Thank you, Scott, for staying on this issue. It is unbelievable that a story like this hasn't gotten more response. We seem to be in denial; this story is about a possibly lethal release of radioactivity from LANL because its safety culture is so lax. Please wake up and send your Governor a message that you're concerned! https://www.governor.state.nm.us/contact-the-governor/

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