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.’ ”