Flawed packing of radioactive waste caused sparks to fly from a container at Los Alamos National Laboratory, prompting evacuation of the work area and later the underground disposal site near Carlsbad where two similarly packed canisters were stored.

The sparking caused no injuries, damage or radiation to be released, according to a letter the lab wrote to the New Mexico Environment Department.

But any combustion involving transuranic nuclear waste is deemed dangerous and calls up memories of the 2014 incident in which a ruptured container from Los Alamos closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico for three years and cost almost $2 billion to clean up.

Both the lab and the state Environment Department are investigating the Feb. 26 incident, which happened as workers were preparing waste shipments to WIPP.

“We consider any potential threat to human health and the environment as a serious incident that must be fully evaluated under federal and state law, rules and permits,” Kaitlyn O’Brien, an Environment Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The incident resulted from questionable practices by LANL employees in characterizing and packaging the waste materials, O’Brien wrote.

Operations have been halted in the work area where the incident occurred until the investigation is finished, she added.

A watchdog group said the lab’s continued miscues in handling nuclear waste show it is not ready to produce plutonium pits used to detonate warheads.

“This is yet another reminder that as the lab ramps up plutonium ‘pit’ bomb-core production, it has yet to resolve its chronic nuclear waste and safety problems,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Workers stuffed two HEPA filters into a bag and placed the bag and a metal object into the drum, according to a March 9 letter the lab wrote to the state Environment Department, summarizing the events.

The metal item tore the bag, and when it made contact with the air filters, workers noticed sparks coming from the drum, the letter said.

Workers pulled a fire alarm, left the area and called the fire department, the letter said.

A fact-finding probe suggests the HEPA filters contained fragments from titanium welding that had been done in a glove box, the letter said, referring to a sealed compartment that allows workers to safely handle radioactive materials.

Air entered the torn bag and oxidized the metallic powder on the filters, which caused the sparking, the letter said.

Investigators determined the lab had four drums containing similar contents. On March 4, the lab notified WIPP it might have two drums with those materials, which would not comply with its waste acceptance guidelines.

The next day, WIPP ordered workers to evacuate the facility until officials could determine the waste posed no threat.

“Subsequently, a rigorous analysis confirmed that the two drums located at WIPP do not present any danger to employees or the environment and are compliant with the waste acceptance criteria,” a spokeswoman at the National Nuclear Security Administration wrote in an email.

Lab workers will resume packing and transporting most waste materials in the next couple of weeks, she added.

A thorough inspection of waste drums at the lab’s Area G found none containing the materials that sparked, she wrote.

Area G is where much of the lab’s massive waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project can be found.

The lab will do a follow-up report to provide more details on why the incident happened and how to prevent a recurrence, O’Brien wrote, adding the agency will look at whether the lab complied with correct procedures.

(4) comments

Mai Ting

It seems that the article could have been more illuminating if the reporter would have clarified that titanium is not a dangerous element and if not radioactive , as a HEPA filter , were there any radioactive waste in the HEPA filter? and if not , why was it in Area G? It sounds to me, as an ordinary reader, it does not explain why sparks were generated. So there are more questions now than before the article. Perhaps the reporter can look into this area of inquiry . As far s the other comments are concerned , they seem more generally wide and doesn't really relate to this particular area of handling nuclear waste ? Perhaps the New Mexican can look into why we need to be making more plutonium pits?

Greg Mello

Just below the surface this is yet another unbalanced article that contains no actual opposition to LANL’s proposed new production mission. Month after crucial month the New Mexican does very little to expose, let alone oppose, the huge transformation proposed and underway at LANL -- and the momentous changes it implies for Santa Fe proper.

Your article has a “watchdog” opinion. What is that exactly? We have decent federal watchdogs – the GAO, the DOE Inspector General, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and we have an actual state regulator, NMED. Yet the nuclear nonprofit complex is riddled with “watchdogs,” not just here but nationally. It’s a model that requires neither much expertise nor much political commitment. This newspaper, which used to be a watchdog itself, is now more comfortable in what is too often a third-hand, twice-removed role of reporting on watchdogs who report on watchdogs. Many of us do keep our eyes open but we are not watchdogs or any other kind of dog. Some of us resist that appellation, which is all-too-easily typed into articles, though often to no avail. Like Santa Fe, this newspaper has moved to the political right, perhaps without realizing it, and the “watchdog” approach to the national security state is part of that. We all need to do a heck of a lot more than watch.

So has the New Mexican taken an implicit editorial stance in favor of perpetual nuclear “deterrence” and the new nuclear arms race, in violation of international law, for the sake of “economic development”? I think that is exactly what is going on. “Watchdogs” aside, the real robbers are walking in the front door and stealing most people blind – the people who actually work for a living and who can barely afford to live in the City Supposedly Different. Does the New Mexican actually WANT greater Santa Fe to host a gigantic nuclear weapons presence, in the name of the "jobs” that such a mission will NOT actually provide. If not, you need to pay closer attention to what is going on, and provide space for the views of the thousands of New Mexicans who actually do oppose this horrible mission.

Accepting pit production at LANL, as Jay does here ("AS the lab ramps up plutonium ‘pit’ bomb-core production"), means accepting all that goes with it, from its takeover of Santa Fe to the perennial safety and waste problems we can all decry until the cows come home. From the point of view of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” LANL pit production is a gift that will keep on giving forever.

If this mission grows, the presence of LANL in Santa Fe will also grow. NNSA will take over Santa Fe. It is now in the process of doing exactly that. A few people will get rich(er) as the rest of the town, county, and region is sold down the dry arroyos.

We – I and this organization -- oppose all this. Santa Fe COULD have a different future. Our entire country is in a state of gradual collapse now, with our climate failure leading to permanent and increasing drought in this state, so it won't be pretty, but we can still do a lot better than what NNSA envisions. It is very important for journalists to identify with the great bulk of the people, who will never get a job at LANL, and who will be hurt by all this. People need work – meaningful work that addresses real human needs, careers people can feel proud about. LANL will never provide that work, either in terms of quality or in sufficient quantity. Our mistaken belief that it might do so drains away the political will to fashion an economy that could provide those real jobs. People and animals also need a livable earth, and the runaway military industrial complex, which the New Mexican tacitly supports, is a major factor preventing the international cooperation needed to save our living world.

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, lasg.org.

Ann Maes

Thank you Greg, for your astute response. I am quite dismayed not more Santa Feans responded to this article!

Ann Maes

Right!! and a month later it becomes public. We are suppose to believe no radiation was leaked. How many of your welders and plumbers who worked at Los Alamos died of cancer. Nuclear waste still gets shipped on our roads and buried in our ground and taxpayers pay for it all. This is not a democracy when we have no say where our Federal tax dollars go.

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