In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.
The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.
For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.
But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.
The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.
The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.
Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.
Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems.
Even before the waste was treated at Los Alamos, mistakes had been made that could have been instrumental in causing the accident at WIPP. Emails between WIPP contractors involved in the leak investigation indicate that something as simple as a typographical error in a revision of LANL’s procedural manual for processing waste containing nitrate salts may have precipitated a switch from inorganic clay kitty litter to the organic variety.
And for two years preceding the February incident, the lab refused to allow inspectors conducting annual permitting audits for the New Mexico Environment Department inside the facility where waste was treated. Only since the radiation leak has the Environment Department demanded that it go inside the facility for inspections.
The waste container that ultimately burst would not have met federal transportation standards to get on the road from Los Alamos to Carlsbad, nor would it have been accepted at WIPP, if its true ingredients had been reported by the lab. Investigators have zeroed in on those ingredients as the possible cause of the chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak, although the exact catalyst for the reaction remains a mystery.
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.
As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.
“We expect that that report will address this very specific question,” Mark Whitney, the Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary of environmental management, told reporters during a teleconference in late September.
A patented explosive
More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.
“All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery for nearly a week after he made it. Only after a Department of Energy employee leaked a copy of the memo to a colleague in Carlsbad the night before a planned entry into the room that held the ruptured drum did WIPP get word that it could be dealing with explosive components inside Waste Drum 68660.
“Have you heard that we at the lab have confirmed that the material used in the drum DOES create an explosive mixture????” James O’Neil of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration wrote May 27 to Hung-Cheng Chiou, who works at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office.
In a follow-up email, O’Neil clarified what he meant: “A letter from the LANL chemistry group here … stated that putting the type of kitty litter of sorts mixed with the nitrate salts created a patented explosive mixture.”
“Wow, that is the news to me,” Chiou wrote back. “How can the explosive mixture be in the drum content that could be sent to WIPP?”
O’Neil expressed his own surprise that such a dangerous load was allowed to be shipped to WIPP.
“Not sure how [that] type drum, which does not meet WIPP [waste acceptance criteria] even got shipped to you guys,” he wrote.
From there, word of the memo reached managers at WIPP.
“I am appalled that LANL didn’t provide us this information!” Dana Bryson, deputy manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, wrote in an email to WIPP-based field office manager Jose Franco and others when she learned of the memo.
LANL officials, in a written statement from a spokesman, said scientific testing has eliminated the explosive nature of the waste as the cause of the radiation leak. Numerous experiments trying to replicate the conditions in Waste Drum 68660 have failed to yield the same result, officials said.
But Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization that tracks activities at the lab, said LANL should have recognized the potentially volatile mix it had concocted before shipping it to WIPP, rather than three months after it burst.
“It took only seconds with Google to find explosives patents” when the foremost ingredients in Waste Drum 68660 were punched in, he said.
On May 27, when they learned of the memo about patented explosives that the lab hadn’t shared with them, supervisors at WIPP abandoned plans for the next day to sample the area where the breach occurred, fearing it was too dangerous.
“In a phone call with LANL, they indicated that there is a possibility that any sampling of the kitty litter/drum contents could cause another event,” David Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer, wrote in an email.
Bryson demanded answers from Peter Maggiore, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s assistant manager for environmental programs at LANL.
“We have a formal letter on LANL letterhead implying there is a real and present danger in the WIPP underground,” Bryson wrote. “This is contrary to everything I have heard from LANL on this issue. The email you sent from LANL implied there might be more of these hidden yet formal warnings.”
Chiou, too, was livid when he learned that the Los Alamos-based employee who first alerted WIPP personnel to the threat was reprimanded by the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Site Office for sharing that information.
“This is direct contradiction of DOE/NNSA policy and what we believed in,” Chiou wrote to Franco, Bryson and others. “It is most important that we have the information (regardless official or unofficial) so that we as [the Carlsbad Field Office of the Energy Department] can make better informed decisions as best we could. However, it may not work that way as it seems. … I hope that we can do better in getting relevant information from LANL so we can make a better decision for the WIPP project.”
After a conference call with LANL officials, WIPP decision-makers on May 30 sent workers in protective suits into the room to collect samples. But a June 17 report by LANL personnel based at WIPP found the intense underground flare may have destabilized up to 55 more drums of waste that were in close proximity to Waste Drum 68660 when it ruptured, calling into question whether they, too, had become poised to burst.
“[The high heat event] may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction,” the report said. “The dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction.”
Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.
A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held.
“LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area. … At least now we know.”
“Wow,” Williams responded. “How bad is that?”
On paper, the volatile combination of contents inside the drum that burst were not evident to experts who reviewed them because they were not included in the list of ingredients Los Alamos is required to generate for regulatory purposes and to assure the waste is stable enough to be accepted at WIPP.
In the case of Waste Drum 68660, that report, known as acceptable knowledge, was woefully incomplete and portrayed the mix as far more stable than it truly was, according to the emails.
In documents filed with the New Mexico Environment Department before the accident, LANL reported that the waste in the drum that would later burst “is stable and will not undergo violent chemical change without detonating,” and “there is no indication that the waste contains explosive materials, and it is not capable of detonation or explosive reaction. The materials in the waste stream are therefore not reactive wastes.”
Los Alamos’ description of the drum’s contents was so flawed that post-accident reviews by WIPP personnel resulted in a revised acceptable knowledge report in May that included everything that had been left out of the original.
“Be sure and read the AK [acceptable knowledge] description … it assumed that the absorbent was clay based,” Freeman wrote to another waste specialist at WIPP.
“A neutralizing agent was used [at LANL] to obtain a neutral pH — though not in the procedure and not documented,” Freeman wrote in another message.
A WIPP report that followed stated: “These chemicals not being considered could lead to an incomplete AK record which could be a violation of the WIPP hazardous waste facility permit requirements.”
Yet another WIPP briefing paper suggests that even though the contents inside Waste Drum 68660 came from an unusually acidic batch of waste with a pH of zero, appropriate handling at LANL could have mitigated the threat, but the use of the wrong neutralizer failed to reconcile the problem and in fact exacerbated it. And in the lab’s description of the waste before it shipped to WIPP, its uniquely high acidity was not reported.
“If the manufacturer’s directions were followed, the liquid would have been neutralized to a pH of approximately 7,” Michael Papp, a waste composition specialist at Nuclear Waste Partnership, wrote to managers for the contractor. “However, the final pH of the liquid was not included in the repackaging paperwork.”
A costly typo
In a damning report issued in October, the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General chided LANL and its waste packaging subcontractor EnergySolutions for the change from clay-based to organic kitty litter and the use of an acid neutralizer.
“This action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications,” the report said, referring to the litter change. A lab spokesman said LANL officials recognize deficiencies in the lab’s safety processes were spotlighted by the disaster at WIPP.
But LANL has never publicly acknowledged the reason why it switched from clay-based litter to the organic variety believed to be the fuel that fed the intense heat. In internal emails, nuclear waste specialists pondered several theories about the reason for the change in kitty litters before settling on an almost comically simplistic conclusion that has never been publicly discussed: A typographical error in a revision to a LANL policy manual for repackaging waste led to a wholesale shift from clay litter to the wheat-based variety.
The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012, mere days after the governor’s celebratory visit to Los Alamos, and explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salt.
“Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?” Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email.
Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation.
“General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” he wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter.
Officials at LANL declined to comment about whether a typographical error led to the switch to organic kitty litter.
Whatever the reason, LANL began treating waste with assorted varieties of organic kitty litter as early as September 2012, spawning thousands of drums of waste that hold the same organic threat that’s being eyed as a contributing factor in the rupture of Waste Drum 68660.
Organic kitty litter may have been mixed in up to 5,565 containers of waste at LANL starting in September 2012 that were incorrectly labeled as holding inorganic litter, according to an assessment conducted by WIPP personnel.
Notes from a May conference call with federal regulators contained in the emails show LANL’s use of organic kitty litter defied clear instructions from WIPP personnel to use the clay type.
“[WIPP contractors] authorized ‘X’ for use and LANL used ‘Y,’ ” Todd Sellmer, transportation and packaging manager at Nuclear Waste Partnership, wrote in an email documenting the call.
Lax state oversight
The push to speed up nuclear waste removal from Los Alamos began after the June 2011 Las Conchas Fire. The blaze, the largest in New Mexico history, scorched 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains and came within a few miles of LANL’s Area G, where 3,327.5 cubic feet of waste from decades of nuclear weapons development was stored.
Worried that another fire would breach the compound, the state Environment Department and lab officials agreed to a June 30, 2014, deadline to clear The Hill of waste and ship it to WIPP.
Meeting the goal meant big money for Los Alamos National Security, the private company formed eight years ago by Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, URS Energy and Construction, and the University of California to operate LANL. The deadline was built into the federal grading scale that determines the contractor’s fee, and more importantly, whether LANS receives extensions of its $2.2 billion-a-year contract to operate the lab at Los Alamos. LANS already had been denied a one-year extension when it failed to meet goals associated with progress toward making several dilapidated facilities operable.
But since the deadline was set, nuclear watchdog groups have publicly criticized Gov. Martinez’s Cabinet secretary for the Environment Department, Ryan Flynn, for relaxing the frequency of waste drum inspections during LANL’s cleanup campaign. Emails obtained by The New Mexican raise new questions about whether oversight of LANL’s waste packaging activities by Flynn’s department was sufficient.
Department inspectors are required to conduct annual audits of the lab to ensure it meets state permitting guidelines. But in 2012 and 2013, Environment Department officials say, LANL warned them to stay out of the waste handling facility because they did not have appropriate training to be around radioactive waste, according to emails.
Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the Environment Department, said the state’s audit team didn’t insist on entering because it was “working on higher priority duties at the time that mandated our attention.”
Only since the disaster at WIPP has the department insisted on getting access to the site where Waste Drum 68660 was processed.
Flynn, meanwhile, has expressed similar frustrations with WIPP officials over what he has called LANL’s reluctance to share what it knows about the contents of the drum. He has made clear that the Environment Department is poised to levy steep penalties against the lab’s permit.
“The more we investigate, the more we’re discovering at Los Alamos,” Flynn told The New Mexican in a September interview.
It’s still unclear what impact the Feb. 14 leak will have on LANS and its contract, which runs through Oct. 1, 2017, according to federal records. Four managers overseeing the cleanup at the lab already have been replaced, and more shake-ups are underway.
Federal officials, meanwhile, estimate a yearslong recovery plan to reopen WIPP will cost at least $500 million — a figure some critics characterize as an overly conservative guess. The financial consequences of the disaster were already becoming evident by May 7, when WIPP-based Department of Energy employee Irene Joo emailed a colleague to speculate about what had gone wrong at LANL.
She wrote: “I expect we will all pay the price.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.
This article has been amended to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Nov. 17, 2014
An earlier version of this story referred to a lawsuit filed by a WIPP worker. The lawsuit stems from a Feb. 5 incident, not the Feb. 14 radiation leak as stated in the story and the reference has been removed from this version.