ALBUQUERQUE — Los Alamos National Laboratory packed 57 barrels of nuclear waste with a type of kitty litter believed to have caused a radiation leak at the federal government’s troubled nuclear waste dump, posing a potentially “imminent” and “substantial” threat to public health and the environment, New Mexico officials said Monday.

State Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn issued a formal order giving the lab two days to submit a plan for securing the waste containers, many of which are likely stored outdoors on the lab’s Northern New Mexico campus or at temporary site in West Texas.

The order says 57 barrels of waste were packed with nitrate salts and organic kitty litter, a combination thought to have caused a heat reaction and radiation release that contaminated 22 workers with low levels of radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February.

The kitty litter soaks up any liquid before drums of waste are sealed and shipped. Officials are investigating whether a switch from non-organic to organic litter is to blame for the leak.

According to the order, two of those containers are known to be at WIPP. It doesn’t say where the rest of the barrels are, but Los Alamos was in the process of transferring the last of thousands of barrels of waste from decades of nuclear bomb making to the underground dump when the leak shuttered the half-mile-deep mine.

Some containers were then transferred to temporary storage at a commercial nuclear waste dump in Andrews, Texas. But all shipments were stopped when investigators earlier this month zeroed in on the Los Alamos container as the likely source of the leak.

“Based on the evidence presented to NMED, the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers at LANL may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment,” the order signed by Flynn states.

The lab said in a statement that officials are committed to ensuring the barrels “pose no significant safety or health risk to the public, the environment and the workers.”

The lab has taken a series of precautionary measures, the statement said, including packing the drums into special containers and moving them under a dome with a fire protection system. The lab is also monitoring the drums for any rise in temperature.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the federal government’s only permanent repository for low-level nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other federal facilities. The containers include things like gloves, tools and protective clothing worn by lab workers.

Nine days before the radiation leak, a truck hauling salt in the mine caught fire. But officials have said the fire was far from the waste-handling area and that the events were likely unrelated.

Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed them on a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site.

(7) comments

Michael Faust

Its not 57 drums, now they fess up to 500 drums, and when the truth is known it will likely be even worse.....500 dirty bombs, shame shame.

Michael Faust

BS the drums do NOT contain things like gloves, they contain high level waste that has been diluted down to 7 Curies per liter.

That mean 1 liter is enough to contaminate 1 Billion Costco chickens to illegal levels.

they have 20,000 of those drums down there at high level, at least 57 to 212 are set to blow up.

stock out

Thomas Quigg

Of course, when soaking up nuclear waste run-off, only ORGANIC kitty litter will do. You wouldn't want to use anything that's bad for the environment..

Dennis Romero

Chris Mechels makes some interesting and valid points. However, I have to point out that one of the very first acts that the Martinez Administration took in the NM Environment Department was to transfer the WIPP Permit Writer and Team Manager into the Field Office to conduct restaurant inspections.

At the time, that individual had put together an outstanding technical and regulatory team that would have been all over this issue before the waste packages were shipped off the hill.

To have NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn, an attorney with less than three years experience before he was appointed to become NMED's general counsel, now state that he is taking action on an "immanent and substantial" threat to the public seems very disingenuous and very dangerous for the public interest, particularly after he and the Martinez Administration approved LANL's accelerated shipping schedule for Transuranic Waste to WIPP.

Chris Mechels

LANL will never be "safe" because they are arrogant. When I worked there (I retired in 1994) on such projects as the Yucca Mountain Project and others, the prevailing attitude was to treat the NNSA as "mushrooms". Keep them in the dark and feed them BS.

The NNSA were "D" Students, per LANL, and treated accordingly. That culture persists.

Sandia National Lab has a culture or "working with" the NNSA and treating them as "customers" and they get along well with NNSA.

LANL does not acknowledge the fact that NNSA, not LANL, represents the taxpayers. LANL describes themselves as representing the interests of the taxpayers, and NNSA is "getting in their way", a bunch of bumblers. That explains why LANL, not SNL, is always yelling about "too much oversight".

A decade or so ago, NNSA recognized that LANL would NEVER do a competent job of managing their waste products and environmental cleanup, and they tried to contract that part of LANL operations to outside contractors. LANL, seeing that money going away, promised reform, and got Senator Domenici "Saint Pete", to kill NNSA's plan. As in other areas Domenici destroyed a good idea.

It is still a good idea to remove that part of LANL operations from their control, as they still love the money, and hate doing the work. Domenici is gone, lets change.

Bill Sortino

Oh my. But the Federal Government said this was totally safe. And, the State Government said this was totally safe. And the corporation running the Lab said this was totally safe. And the Congress wants to send additional waste from other sites there and they say it is totally safe.

I guess we are not in Kansas anymore? This is like the pod Soviet Union but there is no Communism, just Corporatism! The beat goes on!

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