Los Alamos National Laboratory has identified 45 barrels of radioactive waste so potentially explosive — due to being mixed with incompatible chemicals — that crews have been told not to move them and instead block off the area around the containers, according to a government watchdog’s report.

Crews have worked to ferret out drums containing volatile compounds and move them to a more secure domed area of the lab after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board issued a scathing report last year saying there were possibly hundreds of barrels of unstable nuclear waste.

The safety board 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. In its latest weekly report, the safety board said crews at Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, also known as N3B — the contractor in charge of cleaning up the lab’s legacy waste — have pegged 60 barrels with volatile mixtures and have relocated 15 drums to the domed area.

Forty-five barrels are deemed too dangerous to move, raising questions of what ultimately can be done with them and how hazardous it would be to keep them in their current spot.

“The current restrictions are that the containers shall not be moved,” the report said. “There is a marked buffer zone established around each container of potential concern, and intrusive operations are prohibited within the buffer zone.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Energy’s environmental management office said they couldn’t comment on the report or on how the lab stores waste, citing lack of time to answer questions.

Volatile waste mixtures have received more attention since 2014 when a waste container from the Los Alamos lab packaged with a blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts burst in an underground chamber of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. The radioactive release contaminated the storage site so extensively it shut down for three years and cost $2 billion to clean up.

“I think the revelations are extraordinary,” said Dan Hirsch, retired director of environment and nuclear policy programs at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s troubling that some of the most dangerous substances on Earth — plutonium — are mixed with volatile materials that could accidentally cause an explosion or fire that could release them. And it’s troubling that authorities let this happen and don’t seem to know what to do about it.”

Hirsch noted some radioactive vapors escaped from WIPP’s underground site to the open air amid the leak. Federal reports have described a small amount of radioactivity slipping through exhaust vents that have since been sealed.

The fact that any radiation was emitted from below ground illustrates how destructive a waste barrel blowing up above ground could be, Hirsch said.

In the October report, the safety board said lab personnel had failed to analyze chemicals present in hundreds of containers of transuranic nuclear waste, making it possible for incompatible chemicals to cause a container to explode. Crews also never sufficiently estimated how much radiation would be released by such an event.

The board also noted that some of the lab’s facilities store radioactive waste without any engineered controls or safeguards beyond the containers.

Hirsch said no one seems to have any idea what to do with waste that’s too dangerous to move — not the lab, the Energy Department or the safety board.

Waste with that kind of hair trigger should only be analyzed in a “hot cell,” with walls several feet thick, blast-proof glass and robotic arms that a technician operates to handle the materials, Hirsch said.

But the lab would have to find a way to get the waste barrels there, he said.

“The problem never should’ve been created in the first place,” he said. “Now that it’s been created, they seem to be throwing their hands up and saying, ‘We don’t know what to do.’ ”

(6) comments

Sasha Pyle

Typical DOE. Make a mess, fail to clean it up, concede that it can’t adequately be cleaned up, and never stop making more toxic by-products of the lucrative bomb-making gig that has gone on far too long. New Mexico has been victimized by this ‘nuclear colony’ mindset for far too long. DOE: quit making weapons (we have enough), quit making waste (we have enough), clean up your existing mess (creating jobs), and help people transition to work with a future.

Jay Coghlan

Two points:

1) DOE tried very hard to kill the messenger by attempting to severely restrict Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) access to nuclear facilities through its internal Order 140.1. That Order was beaten back only by widespread public and congressional opposition. It was also arguably illegal in that it conflicted with the independent Safety Board’s enabling legislation that explicitly provided for access at the DNFSB’s discretion, not DOE’s.

2) DNFSB’s calculated potential occupational doses of 760 rem (which are lethal) and public offsite doses of up to 24 rem (roughly the equivalent of 2,400 chest x-rays) are far higher than any doses calculated by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in public reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NNSA is claiming that an outdated and erroneous nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement and a LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement, both completed in 2008, meet its legal NEPA requirements to expand the production of plutonium pit bomb cores. NukeWatch (with co-plaintiffs Tri-Valley CAREs and Savannah River Site Watch) has already sued NNSA to compel the required updated nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement.

NukeWatch asserts that for many reasons, including genuine and complete occupational and public risk analysis (not to mention updated wildfire risk analysis in an increasingly arid climate), NNSA should also begin to prepare a new LANL site-wide environmental impact statement.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico


Reynaldo Morales

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report was dated September 24, 2020.

The report states “Pursuant to 42 USC §2286b(d), the Board requests that DOE provide a report within 120 days of receipt of this letter that describes (1) whether the hazards associated with the current transuranic waste container population at Los Alamos National Laboratory are consistently and adequately controlled and DOE’s basis for this position, and (2) whether the

revision to DOE Standard 5506 will address the broader implications of these concerns, as they

are applicable to other DOE sites.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Energy’s environmental management office said they couldn’t comment on the newspaper article or on how the lab stores waste, citing lack of time to answer questions.

DOE has had the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report for almost a year.

LANL was negligent in handling radioactive waste and now DOE is negligent claiming that they have not had time to comment on the report.

LANL needs to be penalized for their incompetence and for creating a potential accident of an exploding waste canister.

Reynaldo Morales

christopher quintana

View this easy to read guide on radiation exposure from cdc:


Greg Mello

I should have mentioned that the New Mexican covered this issue back when Tech-46 was published ("LANL's waste storage poses dangers, report says," Oct 9, 2020), which was good. This is a partial update.

This dire oh-what-can-we-do perspective is not quite right. When it comes to cleanup, there is a tinge of a "can't do" attitude. When it comes to making nuclear weapons, LANL says it can leap over tall buildings in a single bound.

These specific drums aside, the environmental justice aspect of transuranic waste storage at Area G -- very different, far looser (by more than 100 times) standards for TRU waste stored adjacent to San Ildefonso Sacred Area, as opposed to the same waste stored by Triad a few miles west, in the center of LANL -- is important.

Greg Mello

For a more detailed discussion of this issue from 9 months ago, see the Los Alamos Study Group press release of http://lasg.org/press/2020/press_release_9Oct2020.html.

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