LOS ALAMOS — The head of a team of federal investigators who spent a year reviewing the Feb. 14, 2014, radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad said Thursday he’s not certain whether more than one drum of nuclear waste contributed to contamination of the underground repository.

He also told an audience of about 40 in Los Alamos that he couldn’t offer any assurance that similar incidents won’t happen in the future.

The final report about the leak, issued last week by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, spotlighted a series of blunders, lapses in oversight and shortcuts by entities ranging from waste handling subcontractors at Los Alamos National Laboratory to the top levels of the U.S. Department of Energy division responsible for safe handling and disposal of nuclear waste.

Together, these missteps enabled a drum of nuclear waste made hyper-volatile by the addition of organic kitty litter and neutralizer during its packaging at Los Alamos to slip into the ancient salt cavern at WIPP and cause the release, said Ted Wyka, the DOE safety expert who led the investigation.

“The ineffectiveness and weaknesses in the oversight activities were at all levels,” Wyka said.

Nearly a half-mile below the surface at WIPP, the nation’s only below-ground repository for radioactive waste left over from decades of nuclear arms production during the Cold War, a slow-simmering chemical reaction inside the drum reached its climax 72 days after being packed at Los Alamos.

“Most hay farmers would tell you that at a 60-day point with moisture content and oxidizers, you could get a reaction like this,” Wyka said.

The reaction pushed temperatures inside the container to nearly 1,600 degrees, ripping open the drum and scattering radioactive material that breached not only the fortified room that held the waste, but WIPP itself, which was designed to never leak. Independent monitors up to a half mile away detected radiation at levels the U.S. Department of Energy characterized as less than harmful, and 8,000 feet of the WIPP underground complex experienced detectable contamination.

Visual evidence from the room where the drum burst did not reveal any other ruptured containers, but Wyka would not rule out minor seepage from other drums.

More than 20 employees at WIPP were contaminated during the following day, and shipments of waste to WIPP from nuclear production sites around the nation stopped and still haven’t resumed, stranding thousands of barrels of waste at Los Alamos and other nuclear labs. The Energy Department expects to spend at least a half-billion dollars on repairs to WIPP before it can reopen. Preliminary operations are expected to resume next year, but full resumption of work at WIPP could take another two to three years.

The Accident Investigation Board’s report found a series of lapses in the handling of the problematic waste at Los Alamos.

Supervisors shrugged off the significance of foaming, smoking waste and instructed subcontract employees to continue packaging it without taking further steps to assess or re-mediate the waste, fostering a “get it done at all costs” mentality that chilled workers’ willingness to share their safety concerns with their bosses, according to the report. As a result, work on unusually reactive waste continued in the push to get it to WIPP, as deadlines imposed by the New Mexico Environment Department and corresponding financial rewards loomed.

Wyka said that during his team’s dozens of interviews with waste-packaging workers, none said their supervisors raised the strict deadlines when they encountered anomalies with waste. But an unspoken pressure to keep the process moving prevented workers from voicing concerns that would have put the work on hold.

“I don’t think there was a purposefulness in it,” Wyka said, “but it was obviously a desire to keep making the progress they were making without sort of raising a hand and slowing things down.”

Incompatible chemicals – such as organic kitty litter used as absorbent and an organic acid neutralizer – were mixed with nitrate salt nuclear waste, creating conditions conducive to a reaction like the one that shut down WIPP. Los Alamos’ formal descriptions of the waste drum that burst contained incorrect information, such as reporting that inorganic absorbent was used, and omitted any mention of the organic neutralizer that had been added.

Errors in a waste-packaging manual revision in 2012 directed waste handlers to use the organic absorbent instead of the inert, inorganic variety that is compatible with nuclear waste. Overseers of waste at the lab expressed worries about the use of organic components in waste packaging as early as 2012, but the practice continued.

Wyka said the makeup of the nuclear waste in the drum that burst was unique. But with hundreds of drums containing organic materials and nitrate salts at Los Alamos, WIPP and at Waste Control Specialists, a storage site in West Texas, the passage of 14 months since a rupture does not equal an assurance than other breaches won’t follow.

“Does that mean there’s no risk?” he said. “No … We can’t tell you that.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com.

(2) comments

Jim Piver

If they screwed up the handling of low-level waste at the WIPP. just think what will happen if (when) they screw up with spent fuel at Yucca Mountain.

Vernon Brechin

The packing procedures and the WIPP plutonium contaminated radioactive waste disposal facility were developed over a period of at least a decade before the repository started accepting waste containers. The cost of the development was well over 1-billion dollars. The plan included continuous reviews of the procedures. Throughout the process the public was repeatedly reassured that a wide range of factors had been taken into consideration to ensure the safe disposal and waste isolation that would need to prevail for about a half-million years.

This was a serious accident that occurred about 15-years after WIPP opened for waste deposits. It appears that the primary result of this accident will involve a beefing up of the infrastructure that already exists, at a cost of many hundreds of millions of dollars above what was already being spent on the TRU defense (nuclear weapons related) waste disposal system that was already operating.

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