LANL’s review, relabeling of waste drums raises questions about scope of problem

Investigators are still trying to pinpoint what caused this drum of radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to pop open and leak in an underground repository near Carlsbad. A second drum of nuclear waste contains the same volatile mix of ingredients from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

A second drum of nuclear waste contains the same volatile mix of ingredients from Los Alamos National Laboratory that is suspected of causing a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, lawmakers learned Tuesday.

The revelation came during a meeting of the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee in Carlsbad. It signals renewed cause for concern, considering that the precise cause of the Feb. 14 rupture of a waste drum that exposed more than 20 WIPP workers to radiation has not been identified, according to a nuclear watchdog with a close eye on the below-ground nuclear waste repository.

“We need to know what the cause is. We can’t really reopen WIPP until we know what the cause is, and until then we won’t know that it won’t happen again,” said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.

Terry Wallace Jr., the lab’s WIPP recovery manager, told the committee that in addition to the waste drum that burst in February in Panel 7 Room 7 at WIPP, a drum housed in nearby Panel 6 contains the same worrisome mix of waste: organic kitty litter, acid neutralizer and a lead-laden glove introduced during treatment of the Cold War-era waste at Los Alamos.

During the legislative committee’s last meeting in July, LANL officials acknowledged for the first time that during the remediation process, a lead-tainted glove had been left in the drum that later burst, and the glove may have contributed to the chemical reaction that caused the radiation leak at WIPP.

“It’s concerning that just a couple months ago, the scope of the problem was presented to us as one drum,” said state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee. “Now the scope being represented by the lab involves more high-risk drums.”

In all, the report identified 16 drums containing disturbing mixtures of waste. Half of those are of greater concern than the others, Wallace told the panel. And just two of the drums — the one that burst and the one housed in Panel 6 at WIPP — contain the same potentially reactive elements that waste experts regard as the highest concern.

Twelve of the drums containing waste identified as high risk are at WIPP — 11 of them in Panel 6 and the one that ruptured in Panel 7. Six more are stored at the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews, Texas, Wirth said.

The senator expressed relief that none of the drums is still stored on the Los Alamos hillside, where some drums of waste have been kept since WIPP stopped receiving shipments in the aftermath of the radiation leak.

But for Carlsbad, where at least one more waste container has been identified as a potential powder keg, the revelation brings no solace. Access to WIPP’s underground storage facilities has been limited since the February radiation release. As a result, Panel 6, where the second dubious drum of waste remains, cannot be immediately accessed in a way that ensures radiation will not escape.

“There are two problematic drums [at WIPP], one of which they can’t even get at,” Hancock said. “So if it were to explode, that’s a problem.”

Wallace’s report to the committee included acknowledgements that the radiation release at WIPP illuminated that the lab fell short in its oversight of its waste packaging contractor and violated the terms of its operating permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department, Wirth said.

“There was also an acknowledgement from the Department of Energy that over the years, the safety culture at WIPP has slipped,” the senator said. “The question becomes, ‘what comes next?’ ”

The answer, Hancock said, will be contained in the much-anticipated WIPP recovery report. Hancock is skeptical that the report can be adequate when the precise cause of the chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak remains unknown, despite numerous attempts to re-create it by teams of leading scientists from nuclear labs throughout the U.S.

“They want to know what the cause is, too. My concern, frankly, is they’re eventually going to decide that a plausible explanation is good enough,” Hancock said. “That’s not good enough for me, and it shouldn’t be for anybody. I think it’s very likely we won’t know what the cause is. That creates a real conundrum.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

(1) comment

James Wilson

I predict that, if the fools ever do succeed in reopening the site, they won't be able to find the second barrel, because it won't be where it's supposed to be. Meanwhile, raises will be awarded to all WIPP employees, lest any of them move on to sign-spinning jobs in the interim. I loves me some New Mexico!

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