On the night of Feb. 14, a mix of chemicals inside a container of radioactive waste in an underground salt cavern in Southern New Mexico created so much heat the drum’s lid cracked. Radiation leaked out. Heavy bags of magnesium oxide stacked on top of the containers to prevent leaks shifted and disintegrated from the force of the reaction.

A small amount of radiation made its way through filters and an air vent to the ground above the excavated salt bed. An alarm sounded at 11:14 p.m. that night, and the handful of employees at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad were quickly evacuated and tested for radiation exposure. Officials said 21 tested positive, but none at dangerous levels.

Within hours, the nation’s only permanent repository for nuclear waste — the one officials said would never have a radiation leak when the site opened 15 years ago — was shut down for what could be several years.

The container in question, a 55-gallon drum labeled LA00000068660, began its life in the birthplace of the atomic bomb. From a facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Area G, where the waste was repacked, to a room in the salt cavern near Carlsbad, where the drum was stacked and waiting to burst, a whole slew of people were responsible for how it was handled.

Tracing the container’s path from Los Alamos to WIPP reveals the complexities of overseeing and safely handling the transfer of radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear programs.

LANL and other facilities have relied on the cavernous salt beds at WIPP as a permanent solution for dealing with the waste from decades of nuclear arms research and production. The process of packaging and shipping the waste involves more than a dozen state and federal agencies and private contractors — creating layer upon layer of regulatory and supervisory checkpoints.

The Feb. 14 leak has raised questions about these safeguards, both at the state and federal levels. Among the discoveries since the leak, for example, was that one of the subcontractors hired to package the waste for shipment had changed neutralizing agents in the containers, using a product that the manufacturer and independent chemists said could be volatile if mixed with the metallic nitrates and strong oxidizers found in some drums of radioactive waste at LANL.

Federal officials say the radiation leak could keep WIPP closed for as long as three years. As an alternative, LANL began shipping waste to an aboveground site outside of Andrews, Texas, near the New Mexico border.

The LANL shipments were frozen, however, after WIPP investigators found the container that leaked radiation had come from Los Alamos, and that there could be many more containers with the same volatile chemical mix waiting to be shipped.

While the ultimate cause of the cracked and leaking drum at the nuclear repository hasn’t been determined, nuclear watchdogs as well as state and lab officials say the incident has made clear the need for better oversight.

“If one or more containers from LANL caused the release at WIPP, it clearly indicates a problem at both, because it was never supposed to happen at WIPP or LANL,” said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center. “There were multiple levels of failure in that regard.”

Genesis of a waste legacy

As nuclear scientists hurried in 1943 to build a bomb capable of ending World War II, they created a different problem in their wake. Nuclear research and weapons development over the ensuing decades left behind waste dumps, containers and laboratories filled with radioactive contaminated materials on the mesas around Los Alamos. Stormwater ran across the waste dumps, down canyons and into the Rio Grande. A regional aquifer lay beneath lab property and the dumps.

The New Mexico Environment Department and nuclear watchdogs raised concerns about the waste and its potential to contaminate the river and groundwater.

In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency authorized the state Environment Department to expand its hazardous waste program at the lab under federal law. The EPA had already identified more than 1,200 potential dump sites scattered around 40 square miles of lab property on the Pajarito Plateau.

The state began overseeing the permit under which the lab manages its radioactive waste and ships it to WIPP. And by 2002, the state was in court, battling the federal government and LANL’s operators over cleaning up the waste.

The lab was under the gun to remove not only the legacy waste, but also new waste generated by ongoing nuclear research.

Waste problems grow

Problems linked to radioactive and other hazardous wastes had been mounting at the lab.

In 1994, a decades-old treatment plant designed by LANL to handle the lab’s low-level radioactive waste began leaking contaminants. As the lab scrambled to fix the problem, a plume of explosive chemicals was found leaching underground into a deep aquifer.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials were trying to allay public fears as they promoted an underground storage facility 30 miles from Carlsbad, deep in ancient salt caverns. WIPP opened in 1999.

Then in 2000, as the Cerro Grande Fire swept across the Jemez Mountains and ripped through Los Alamos, an old dump site called Material Disposal Area R ignited and burned underground for more than a month. At the time, state officials said the World War II-era dump probably contained high explosives, depleted uranium, barium, beryllium and heavy metals. The dump didn’t explode, but the incident worried state officials.

By 2003, then state Environment Secretary Ron Curry had put the lab on notice. Storm runoff from lab property into nearby canyons tested positive for small amounts of plutonium, and a spring seeping into the Rio Grande below lab property also was contaminated with tritium and nitrates.

The state won concessions and, in a 2005 consent order, laid out requirements for LANL to clean up its mess. While the order didn’t apply to plutonium, uranium and other radionuclides used in nuclear research, it covered hazardous wastes mixed with radioactive materials. This included everything from liquids used to clean lab equipment and recover plutonium to old gloves and glass beakers.

Technicians began digging up and uncovering drums, boxes and trash cans full of radioactive waste. The material was then packed in containers and stored in domes and other covered facilities at a 63-acre area on lab property known as Technical Area-54, Area G. All the containers of one waste stream were grouped and labeled. Little by little those drums, called “parent containers,” were probed, their chemical contents labeled and their radiation levels tested. The materials were then repacked into “daughter” containers.

In 2003, there were 40,000 drums of waste piled on pallets beneath fabric tents at Area G. Originally, the lab and the state had hoped to get all the mixed radioactive waste off the mesa by 2010. But in 2011, as the massive Las Conchas Fire burned uncomfortably close to Area G, 3,706 cubic meters of the stuff still waited to be hauled away.

The state set a deadline to get that waste off the Hill and down to WIPP by June 30 of this year. The lab began processing the waste seven days a week in four facilities, with more than 400 workers helping, according the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The lab was making good progress in meeting the deadline, with only a few hundred containers left to ship out, when the LANL container in WIPP burst and everything ground to a halt.

The parents

LAS855793 was a parent waste container that, when repacked, became the 55-gallon daughter drum that cracked open and leaked at WIPP.

The parent waste drum came from a waste stream including liquids such as hydrochloric and nitric acids, kerosene, methanol, silicone oil, nitrate salts, heavy metals and two main radioactive isotopes — plutonium-239 and uranium-238. Ascarite, diatomaceous earth, vermiculite and kitty litter were added to soak up any liquids.

This waste stream was younger than others, dating back to only 1979. The waste was generated by plutonium pit production for nuclear warheads and other nuclear defense activities at Technical Area 55, according to a LANL waste stream profile. In all, the waste filled more than 370 containers averaging 55 gallons each.

The state Environment Department, in an April 2013 audit, approved the waste stream. The department audits waste streams about once a year, but doesn’t inspect individual containers or have authority over how they are packed. The material also was approved for repacking in June 2013 by subcontractors working under Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private contractor that operates WIPP.

The parent drum was taken to a repackaging facility at Area G, where containers are X-rayed to ensure they contain no materials prohibited at WIPP, such as aerosol cans, ignitable materials or liquids that can cause gas buildup or other problems.

From there, the parent drum was placed in a “glovebox,” a metal box with glass portholes and protective gloves, where technicians from Salt Lake City-based contractor EnergySolutions do the risky work of unpacking plastic bags full of waste. Dressed in protective suits and booties and armed with devices to track radiation exposure, the technicians test the pH level of the waste, add neutralizers if needed and mix in an absorbent like kitty litter if the waste contains liquids.

“A lot of the drums we opened up had a lot of liquid,” said one former employee familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

Technicians are supposed to write down what is in each container and what was added. These data sheets are among the mountains of paperwork investigators are going through now as they try to determine the cause of the melted drum that shut down WIPP.

The technicians then repack the waste in daughter drums.

On Dec. 4, 2013, daughter drum No. LA00000068660 was packed and certified for shipping by the Nuclear Waste Partnership-Central Characterization Project. CCP is the arm of the company that ensures lab containers meet requirements for storage at WIPP.

It was somewhere in the repackaging that things apparently went wrong, according to the former employee and other experts who have studied documents detailing the process.



Nitrate salts

In addition to inspecting, testing and recording the contents of the drums, EnergySolutions also gets them ready to ship to WIPP. The company provides heavy equipment operators, training coordinators, administration and safety and compliance personnel to manage LANL’s mixed-waste program.

Technicians’ handling of the radioactive waste in the glovebox is governed in part by a 140-page set of procedures that covers everything from how high to lift the waste containers to wearing non-slip footwear.

Drums containing nitrate salts require special handling because the salts could be volatile when mixed with certain chemicals. The repackaged daughter drum that later burst at WIPP contained nitrate salts, as did hundreds of other drums packed from the same waste stream.

In March 2013, a month before the state Environment Department signed off on an audit of the waste stream, EnergySolutions asked LANL for permission to revise a procedure for handling nitrate salts when the waste was being repackaged, one of several requests the contractor had made in relation to the salts.

This change allowed greater flexibility in how much absorbent was used to soak up liquids. “No additional hazards were identified during this revision,” according to the request. The request was approved by the EnergySolutions operations manager, a subject matter expert, a shift operations manager, and staff in engineering, quality assurance and radiation protection.

A few months later, EnergySolutions also switched from a clay-based kitty litter to Swheat, an organic kitty litter, for absorbing fluids. It is unclear why the contractor made the switch or whether LANL approved the switch, and lab officials wouldn’t comment.

The former employee familiar with the repackaging process said EnergySolutions staff tried to warn the company’s administrators that the switch in kitty litter was a bad idea. The nitrate salts and the wheat-based kitty litter created a combustible mix, according to chemists. The warnings were ignored, the employee said.

“They put us in danger, too,” he said.

EnergySolutions did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

In September, a Los Alamos National Security subcontractor approved a request by an EnergySolutions industrial hygienist to try a new base neutralizer, Kolorsafe.

The approval was made despite a warning in Kolorsafe’s “Material Safety Data Sheet” that the product shouldn’t be mixed with several chemicals, including strong oxidizers and metallic nitrates.

When the drum was repacked, EnergySolutions added both Kolorsafe to balance the pH level and the organic kitty litter to soak up excess liquid.

A similar process was followed for dozens of containers from the same waste stream at LANL.

By May 1, more than two months after the leak, investigators had narrowed down the radiation leak to a set of waste drums in Panel 7. A May 1 report found “potential inadequacy” of the documented safety analysis. Experts said it was possible that untreated nitrate salts had come into contact with other materials in the drums and caused an “energetic chemical reaction.”

Jim Blankenhorn, recovery manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, told a town hall meeting in Carlsbad that the team had run across inconsistencies in a LANL waste stream with nitrate salts “that, if untreated and in the presence of an organic like plastic or paper, could result in a reactive chemical energetic event.”

Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, said no one knows for sure that the chemical combination is what caused the drum to burst, or even if it was the only drum that ruptured. But as many as 40 years ago, LANL scientists knew and wrote about the problems of nitrates salts and combustion, he said.

At WIPP

Once a shipment arrives at WIPP, Nuclear Waste Partnership staff review the hazardous waste manifest and inspect the shipping containers to make sure they comply with requirements for storage at the facility. Employees complete a radiological survey before shipping containers are offloaded and brought into the Waste Handling Building.

Inside, technicians conduct more radiological surveys, then remove the outer and inner lids from the transportation package. Waste containers are removed using an overhead bridge crane and a lifting device. The waste containers are placed on steel pallets and moved to a temporary staging area, where workers scan the actual waste containers for radioactivity. The pallet of waste drums is taken 2,150 feet underground and placed in storage rooms in the salt bed, called panels. Once a panel is full, it is closed.

The New Mexico Environment Department and the EPA have open access to the WIPP facility and conduct periodic audits and inspections.

After the radiation leak Feb. 14, it took investigators several weeks to trim the list of possible causes.

A preliminary report by the federal Accident Investigation Board narrowed the cause of the radiation leak to two damaged barrels in Panel 7, sandwiched in a group of seven containers. The board still hasn’t filed a final report.

The board, in an April report, also cited a number of other problems at WIPP, including poor management, an eroding safety culture, ineffective maintenance and a lack of proper oversight.

A May 8 internal report from Nuclear Waste Partnership found the chemicals used for neutralizing the fluids had not been included in an inventory of the materials in each container. “These chemicals not being considered could lead to an incomplete … record which could be a violation of a the WIPP hazardous waste facility permit requirements,” the report says.

The report recommends evaluation of the neutralizing agents and suggests LANL and its contractors better document changes made to the chemical mixtures.

Federal investigators looking into the leak, as well a truck that caught fire inside WIPP two weeks before the leak, also have said the safety culture at WIPP had eroded.

What next

Investigators are still checking to see if other containers were involved in the leak. They have found other nitrate salt drums from the same waste stream in another WIPP storage room and have crafted a plan to seal it off.

Experts say the handful of WIPP employees exposed to radiation aren’t expected to suffer “lasting health effects,” and no “actual or potential hazards to human health or the environment” are expected from the radiation that reached the air outside the WIPP facility.

But investigators still don’t know the extent of radiation in the underground facility.

LANL Director Charles McMillan said the WIPP incident is a call for change.

“In addition to pursuing the technical basis for understanding the WIPP event, our preliminary internal investigation has revealed weaknesses in our own processes, and we need to determine whether this contributed to the event and make immediate course corrections,” McMillan said in a recent memo to LANL staff.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in an email that he was frustrated with the pace of the investigation, but he said “safety — not speed — should be the top priority.”

And while the investigation is continuing, the senator said, “Clearly more care must be put on packaging going forward.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said he wants to wait for investigators to complete their analysis before assigning blame. But he said if either Los Alamos National Security or Nuclear Waste Partnership is found responsible, it should be held accountable.

This much is certain: Nuclear defense research continues, and there will be an ongoing need for a place to safely store, for thousands of years, the radioactive waste that is produced.

This article has been amended to reflect the following correction: 

Correction: On Page A-4 of the Sunday, June 8, 2014, edition, a story about a container that leaked radioactivity in the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad said, “The state Environment Department, in an April 2013 audit, approved the waste stream” of materials sent from Los Alamos National Laboratory to WIPP. The story didn’t make clear that it was a federal audit and not performed by the state agency. The state’s oversight of waste streams is limited to observation and review of audits performed by the Department of Energy and its auditors.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

(18) comments

Leo Ortiz

In general, are people safe to live and work in Los Alamos based on the contents of this article? This is radiation we are talking about here; something that doesn't decay for millions of years and can cause significant long-term biological problems to humans and living organisms. I saw the Chernobyl Diaries and this raised a flag for me.

Vernon Brechin

The description of what happened, in this article, was well downplayed. Visual evidence suggests a possible hydrogen fire melted numerous magnesium oxide sacks. The investigation needs to involve the removal of the waste containers between the waste face and the ruptured barrel. Then that barrel needs to be removed for a thorough forensic analysis.

The type of radioactive waste that WIPP is licensed to take is transuranic (TRU) waste that is primarily laced with the isotope plutonium-239. This kind of waste requires isolation from the biosphere for about a half-million years. WIPP is licensed to isolate it for 10,000 years via a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation.

WIPP is part of the deferred solution to the U.S. nuclear waste problem. The TRU, that WIPP had been accepting, is a product of the vast arsenal of nuclear weapons that the U.S. has been producing for the last 75 years.

Weapons grade plutonium, at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) that was intended to be converted into MOX reactor fuel, has been down-blended and shipped to WIPP as TRU. Some of those drums are listed as being in the same area as the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) drum that ruptured. The U.S. inventory of TRU waste exceeds the capacity of WIPP which is already near full capacity. In the northern section of the mine research was underway to determine if the salt formation can hold the defense high-level radioactive (HRW) that was originally destined to be buried at the Yucca Mountain repository which failed to be approved for development into a disposal operation.

Due to this unexpected leak the facility may never be able to accept more TRU waste. Various U.S. States have legally binding agreements to remove that waste from the source facilities by specific dates. Those agreements are likely to be broken due to the predicted extended closure of WIPP.

Plutonium-239
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-239

Jennifer Bizzarro

who are you, Vern?

Carl Willis

Thanks for an interesting and well-researched article. What I find particularly uncomfortable about this WIPP leak scenario is its close parallels to some previous accidents, particularly the disastrous 1957 explosion of waste tanks at the Mayak plant north of Chelyabinsk (the "Kyshtym disaster"), that were occasioned by improper mixing of nitrates with oxidizable organic material. This is an elementary chemical compatibility issue, and if the lessons of Kyshtym aren't being integrated into the formal procedures and the situational awareness relating to this modern waste disposal project, we've got a serious systematic problem.

Thanks Carl. Wasn't familiar with case you mentioned.

Leslie Barnard

"Federal investigators looking into the leak, as well a truck that caught fire inside WIPP two weeks before the leak, also have said the safety culture at WIPP had eroded."
Please keep us informed of the changes being made to change the "safety culture at WIPP, how extensive the leak really is and efforts to mitigate the situation. I realize it's quite small in comparison to the Fukushima disaster but it's still a local threat and needs to be monitored by the media so there isn't the cover-up that often occurs when government tends to try to keep operations/communications insular.

Stan Bies

Very Interesting, fact based, non political explanation of what is going on with an important matter with potentialy serious repercussions for all.

Jennifer Bizzarro

Who are all these unnamed commenters?

Joe Savoldi

Any mention of radioactivity always brings out the sky-is-falling crowd. They take great pleasure from the feeling of wholesomeness they get when there appears to be a reason for their existence. These friends of the earth make their living off grievances and I've come to the conclusion that they actually believe they are saving the planet. Writers like Matlock of course exploit the exaggerated fears of radioactivity to sell newspapers. Their understanding of the subject is zero.
In terms of quantifiable risk, the waste at Los Alamos is very low compared to driving on our highways; Or many other seemingly minor risks of turning into worm food. I think Santa Fe and other cities should prohibit gasoline trucks from going through them. Imagine the consequences of one of those behemoths exploding at Cerrillos and St Francis?.......Free Tibet....Save the whale....

Chris Mechels

This piece could have benefited from a lot more Don Hancock, and less filler. Don "owns" this WIPP issue, and knows its troubled history cold.

True, Chris. But journalists try not to rely on only one source. Hancock knows his stuff, but we needed to back up his knowledge with actual documents from LANL, EnergySolutions and WIPP, all of which NMED has posted as a public service on the department's website.

Sommer Karnes

Staci, This is a good article but you got some facts wrong. The Environment Department has never audited that waste stream.

According to the document CCP-TP-002 on the NMED website:
The CCP Waste Stream Profile Form, for LA-MIN02-V.001
#6. Date of audit report approval by NMED: April 18, 2013
That may not mean NMED performed an actual physical audit, but the department reviewed and signed off on the audit report. That had little if anything to do with the problem container, though since the audit was for the entire waste stream.
Does it indicate, though, the need for better communication between EnergySolutions and NMED regarding the procedures for packing individual containers?

Sommer Karnes

The line you cite of the WSPF is referencing the facility audit, not an audit of the particular waste stream.

Greg Mello

Great article. Let us hope more follow!

Folks do not yet understand that LANL is still producing radioactive waste and expects to do so indefinitely, or that until recently all of LANL's "low-level" waste was disposed on site and in the future much of it will likely be also.

Four large new areas at LANL are reserved to become future nuclear waste dumps.

No cleanup is planned for most LANL radioactive waste, so the myth of “cleanup” has not been dispelled. The reasons it has taken so long to get this waste off the Hill is the same reason LANL hopes to produce millions of pounds of future waste while ramping up as a factory for new kinds of nuclear weapons. There is no real purpose for this other than churning the stockpile and keeping LANL and its equally greedy fraternal twin in Livermore busy, as well as the other weapons plants -- busy replacing weapons that are not wearing out and do not need replacement.

The New Mexican is right to focus on this mistake in part because it shows such mistakes are not something we can relegate to the bad old days. Accidents happen, and can have severe consequences, especially to workers. LANL’s plutonium facility has been partly shut down for a year now because the possibility of accidental criticality can't be ruled out. LANL seeks billions to expand plutonium processing, unnecessarily.

Plutonium blights.

Francisco Carbajal

Again, now this WIPP story is out with some more details about what happens from the angle of transporting the radioactive materials in drums from LANL to the Carlsbad site. So, what happens with the other DOE transportation procedures from the other DOE sites (i.e., Rocky Flats, Oakridge, Pantex, etc.) who handle process or non-process radioactive material items to the WIPP location in NM? Is our local, state, and federal emergency management system in place to handle in an event of an transportation incident on our Interstate Highway System or not? I assume that not all DOE transportation units participate in the marked TRUPACK containers and armed escorts process. Would it be safe to say that the DOE people have other contractors or subcontractors who transport radioactive material in un-label or un-marked tractor-trailers on NM Highways daily without police escorts, etc.? Recently, Santa Fe had a DUI suspect hit a tractor-trailer who was parked on Interstate 25/Cerrillos exit with loaded drums of serious chemicals (some type of hazardous material - Acid) without an explosion. How lucky that these drums did not burst, yet, if the scenario would of change to the worst, could the local first responder's handle the haz-mat material if the containers in the barrels would of been radioactive material instead? [scared]

Hi Francisco,
We are working to answer your question. Stay tuned for a story down the road.

Charlene Montoya

The New Mexico State Police used to monitor those trucks day and night until someone decided it wasn't nessary anymore. When the NMSP stopped I saw Don Hancock on the news and he wasn't happy about the monitoring being stopped by the state. can you imagine if one of those trucks were to get in an accident or high jacked? not many people commented on it though not until there was a real accident luckily it was at the WIPP site and not on US84/285 or in Santa Fe.

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