The titanium fragments that caused a nuclear waste drum to throw off sparks at Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this year are prohibited at the underground disposal site near Carlsbad and never should have been packed, according to a federal report.
Managers at both the lab and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant failed to screen out the titanium, which is on WIPP’s list of prohibited materials, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in its most recent report.
HEPA filters containing titanium welding shards were stuffed in a plastic bag, then placed with a metal object in a drum, according to the report. The metal item tore the plastic, and the air entering the ripped bag oxidized the titanium, igniting sparks.
The sparking barrel led to evacuations at both the lab’s work area and WIPP because both sites had drums with a similar mix of materials.
The board expects to issue a full report this week with additional details.
The February incident caused no injuries, damage or radiation to be released. But it calls up memories of a ruptured waste container in 2014 contaminating WIPP so extensively with radiation that the underground site was closed for three years and cost almost $2 billion to clean up.
In an email, a lab spokesman wrote that a team is analyzing the causes behind the “titanium sparking event.”
“Protecting the health and safety of the laboratory’s workforce and the public, and being good stewards of the environment are among the laboratory’s highest priorities,” the spokesman wrote.
The report said that allowing the titanium to be mixed in with waste shipped to WIPP shows flaws in the efforts to shore up workers’ knowledge of unaccepted materials after the 2014 radiological leak.
In that mishap, waste was packaged in a combustible blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts that burst the container, spewing radiation.
The report also faulted managers for not recognizing that workers welding inside a glove box — a sealed compartment used to handle radioactive materials — could produce metallic dust that could spontaneously combust when exposed to air.
The lab spokesman wrote teams are looking into corrective actions, such as enhancing the analysis of combustible hazards related to glove boxes.
That includes ensuring these materials are safe before they are removed from the boxes, he wrote. The lab also aims to increase training and qualifications of personnel to ensure waste going to WIPP is free of volatile hazards, he wrote.
A regional anti-nuclear advocacy group agreed with the report’s criticisms.
“The titanium metal fines that caused the sparking drum are not allowed to be sent to WIPP, yet LANL shipped some to WIPP because LANL did not know that they were creating the problem,” said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Kovac said the latest mishandling of waste casts further doubt on the lab’s ability to safely produce 30 plutonium pits a year by 2026 for triggering nuclear warheads.
He and other critics contend the lab is struggling to clean up the vast amount of legacy waste generated before 1999, and that pit production would create more. Still, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the country’s weapons programs, has approved the lab for “critical decision 1.”
That means the conceptual design for the lab’s pit production was approved along with the estimated cost of $2.7 billion to $3.9 billion to improve or add the required infrastructure and equipment.
In an email, a longtime anti-nuclear activist wrote he is most concerned about the board’s comments about corrective measures stumbling after the 2014 incident at WIPP.
“At a complex facility, problems will always come to light and that shows the system is working,” wrote Greg Mello, executive director of nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. “But when the same problems keep coming back, never adequately fixed, that’s a sign of deeper issues — either that the problems are intractable or that the culture is a little broken. Or both.”