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LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak

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Missteps and secrets: Lab officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.

The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.

Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.

The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

On Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.

Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems.

Even before the waste was treated at Los Alamos, mistakes had been made that could have been instrumental in causing the accident at WIPP. Emails between WIPP contractors involved in the leak investigation indicate that something as simple as a typographical error in a revision of LANL’s procedural manual for processing waste containing nitrate salts may have precipitated a switch from inorganic clay kitty litter to the organic variety.

And for two years preceding the February incident, the lab refused to allow inspectors conducting annual permitting audits for the New Mexico Environment Department inside the facility where waste was treated. Only since the radiation leak has the Environment Department demanded that it go inside the facility for inspections.

The waste container that ultimately burst would not have met federal transportation standards to get on the road from Los Alamos to Carlsbad, nor would it have been accepted at WIPP, if its true ingredients had been reported by the lab. Investigators have zeroed in on those ingredients as the possible cause of the chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak, although the exact catalyst for the reaction remains a mystery.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.

As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.

“We expect that that report will address this very specific question,” Mark Whitney, the Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary of environmental management, told reporters during a teleconference in late September.

A patented explosive

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.

“All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.

Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery for nearly a week after he made it. Only after a Department of Energy employee leaked a copy of the memo to a colleague in Carlsbad the night before a planned entry into the room that held the ruptured drum did WIPP get word that it could be dealing with explosive components inside Waste Drum 68660.

“Have you heard that we at the lab have confirmed that the material used in the drum DOES create an explosive mixture????” James O’Neil of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration wrote May 27 to Hung-Cheng Chiou, who works at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office.

In a follow-up email, O’Neil clarified what he meant: “A letter from the LANL chemistry group here … stated that putting the type of kitty litter of sorts mixed with the nitrate salts created a patented explosive mixture.”

“Wow, that is the news to me,” Chiou wrote back. “How can the explosive mixture be in the drum content that could be sent to WIPP?”

O’Neil expressed his own surprise that such a dangerous load was allowed to be shipped to WIPP.

“Not sure how [that] type drum, which does not meet WIPP [waste acceptance criteria] even got shipped to you guys,” he wrote.

From there, word of the memo reached managers at WIPP.

“I am appalled that LANL didn’t provide us this information!” Dana Bryson, deputy manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, wrote in an email to WIPP-based field office manager Jose Franco and others when she learned of the memo.

Missteps and secrets: Lab officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak

A close-up photo of an unsealed waste container from LANL was taken May 22 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. File photo / courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

LANL officials, in a written statement from a spokesman, said scientific testing has eliminated the explosive nature of the waste as the cause of the radiation leak. Numerous experiments trying to replicate the conditions in Waste Drum 68660 have failed to yield the same result, officials said.

But Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization that tracks activities at the lab, said LANL should have recognized the potentially volatile mix it had concocted before shipping it to WIPP, rather than three months after it burst.

“It took only seconds with Google to find explosives patents” when the foremost ingredients in Waste Drum 68660 were punched in, he said.

On May 27, when they learned of the memo about patented explosives that the lab hadn’t shared with them, supervisors at WIPP abandoned plans for the next day to sample the area where the breach occurred, fearing it was too dangerous.

Missteps and secrets: Lab officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak

WIPP recovery teams made multiple trips into the underground storage facility in April, eventually reaching the room where a LANL waste drum ruptured and caused a radioactive leak. Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

“In a phone call with LANL, they indicated that there is a possibility that any sampling of the kitty litter/drum contents could cause another event,” David Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer, wrote in an email.

Bryson demanded answers from Peter Maggiore, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s assistant manager for environmental programs at LANL.

“We have a formal letter on LANL letterhead implying there is a real and present danger in the WIPP underground,” Bryson wrote. “This is contrary to everything I have heard from LANL on this issue. The email you sent from LANL implied there might be more of these hidden yet formal warnings.”

Chiou, too, was livid when he learned that the Los Alamos-based employee who first alerted WIPP personnel to the threat was reprimanded by the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Site Office for sharing that information.

“This is direct contradiction of DOE/NNSA policy and what we believed in,” Chiou wrote to Franco, Bryson and others. “It is most important that we have the information (regardless official or unofficial) so that we as [the Carlsbad Field Office of the Energy Department] can make better informed decisions as best we could. However, it may not work that way as it seems. … I hope that we can do better in getting relevant information from LANL so we can make a better decision for the WIPP project.”

After a conference call with LANL officials, WIPP decision-makers on May 30 sent workers in protective suits into the room to collect samples. But a June 17 report by LANL personnel based at WIPP found the intense underground flare may have destabilized up to 55 more drums of waste that were in close proximity to Waste Drum 68660 when it ruptured, calling into question whether they, too, had become poised to burst.

“[The high heat event] may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction,” the report said. “The dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction.”

Keeping secrets

Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.

A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held.

“LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area. … At least now we know.”

“Wow,” Williams responded. “How bad is that?”

On paper, the volatile combination of contents inside the drum that burst were not evident to experts who reviewed them because they were not included in the list of ingredients Los Alamos is required to generate for regulatory purposes and to assure the waste is stable enough to be accepted at WIPP.

In the case of Waste Drum 68660, that report, known as acceptable knowledge, was woefully incomplete and portrayed the mix as far more stable than it truly was, according to the emails.

Missteps and secrets: Lab officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak

A container from Los Alamos National Laboratory that was stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad caused a radiation leak in February. Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

In documents filed with the New Mexico Environment Department before the accident, LANL reported that the waste in the drum that would later burst “is stable and will not undergo violent chemical change without detonating,” and “there is no indication that the waste contains explosive materials, and it is not capable of detonation or explosive reaction. The materials in the waste stream are therefore not reactive wastes.”

Los Alamos’ description of the drum’s contents was so flawed that post-accident reviews by WIPP personnel resulted in a revised acceptable knowledge report in May that included everything that had been left out of the original.

“Be sure and read the AK [acceptable knowledge] description … it assumed that the absorbent was clay based,” Freeman wrote to another waste specialist at WIPP.

“A neutralizing agent was used [at LANL] to obtain a neutral pH — though not in the procedure and not documented,” Freeman wrote in another message.

A WIPP report that followed stated: “These chemicals not being considered could lead to an incomplete AK record which could be a violation of the WIPP hazardous waste facility permit requirements.”

Yet another WIPP briefing paper suggests that even though the contents inside Waste Drum 68660 came from an unusually acidic batch of waste with a pH of zero, appropriate handling at LANL could have mitigated the threat, but the use of the wrong neutralizer failed to reconcile the problem and in fact exacerbated it. And in the lab’s description of the waste before it shipped to WIPP, its uniquely high acidity was not reported.

“If the manufacturer’s directions were followed, the liquid would have been neutralized to a pH of approximately 7,” Michael Papp, a waste composition specialist at Nuclear Waste Partnership, wrote to managers for the contractor. “However, the final pH of the liquid was not included in the repackaging paperwork.”

A costly typo

In a damning report issued in October, the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General chided LANL and its waste packaging subcontractor EnergySolutions for the change from clay-based to organic kitty litter and the use of an acid neutralizer.

“This action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications,” the report said, referring to the litter change. A lab spokesman said LANL officials recognize deficiencies in the lab’s safety processes were spotlighted by the disaster at WIPP.

But LANL has never publicly acknowledged the reason why it switched from clay-based litter to the organic variety believed to be the fuel that fed the intense heat. In internal emails, nuclear waste specialists pondered several theories about the reason for the change in kitty litters before settling on an almost comically simplistic conclusion that has never been publicly discussed: A typographical error in a revision to a LANL policy manual for repackaging waste led to a wholesale shift from clay litter to the wheat-based variety.

The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012, mere days after the governor’s celebratory visit to Los Alamos, and explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salt.

“Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?” Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email.

Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation.

“General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” he wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter.

Officials at LANL declined to comment about whether a typographical error led to the switch to organic kitty litter.

Whatever the reason, LANL began treating waste with assorted varieties of organic kitty litter as early as September 2012, spawning thousands of drums of waste that hold the same organic threat that’s being eyed as a contributing factor in the rupture of Waste Drum 68660.

Organic kitty litter may have been mixed in up to 5,565 containers of waste at LANL starting in September 2012 that were incorrectly labeled as holding inorganic litter, according to an assessment conducted by WIPP personnel.

Notes from a May conference call with federal regulators contained in the emails show LANL’s use of organic kitty litter defied clear instructions from WIPP personnel to use the clay type.

“[WIPP contractors] authorized ‘X’ for use and LANL used ‘Y,’ ” Todd Sellmer, transportation and packaging manager at Nuclear Waste Partnership, wrote in an email documenting the call.

Lax state oversight

The push to speed up nuclear waste removal from Los Alamos began after the June 2011 Las Conchas Fire. The blaze, the largest in New Mexico history, scorched 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains and came within a few miles of LANL’s Area G, where 3,327.5 cubic feet of waste from decades of nuclear weapons development was stored.

Worried that another fire would breach the compound, the state Environment Department and lab officials agreed to a June 30, 2014, deadline to clear The Hill of waste and ship it to WIPP.

Meeting the goal meant big money for Los Alamos National Security, the private company formed eight years ago by Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, URS Energy and Construction, and the University of California to operate LANL. The deadline was built into the federal grading scale that determines the contractor’s fee, and more importantly, whether LANS receives extensions of its $2.2 billion-a-year contract to operate the lab at Los Alamos. LANS already had been denied a one-year extension when it failed to meet goals associated with progress toward making several dilapidated facilities operable.

But since the deadline was set, nuclear watchdog groups have publicly criticized Gov. Martinez’s Cabinet secretary for the Environment Department, Ryan Flynn, for relaxing the frequency of waste drum inspections during LANL’s cleanup campaign. Emails obtained by The New Mexican raise new questions about whether oversight of LANL’s waste packaging activities by Flynn’s department was sufficient.

Department inspectors are required to conduct annual audits of the lab to ensure it meets state permitting guidelines. But in 2012 and 2013, Environment Department officials say, LANL warned them to stay out of the waste handling facility because they did not have appropriate training to be around radioactive waste, according to emails.

Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the Environment Department, said the state’s audit team didn’t insist on entering because it was “working on higher priority duties at the time that mandated our attention.”

Only since the disaster at WIPP has the department insisted on getting access to the site where Waste Drum 68660 was processed.

Flynn, meanwhile, has expressed similar frustrations with WIPP officials over what he has called LANL’s reluctance to share what it knows about the contents of the drum. He has made clear that the Environment Department is poised to levy steep penalties against the lab’s permit.

“The more we investigate, the more we’re discovering at Los Alamos,” Flynn told The New Mexican in a September interview.

It’s still unclear what impact the Feb. 14 leak will have on LANS and its contract, which runs through Oct. 1, 2017, according to federal records. Four managers overseeing the cleanup at the lab already have been replaced, and more shake-ups are underway.

Federal officials, meanwhile, estimate a yearslong recovery plan to reopen WIPP will cost at least $500 million — a figure some critics characterize as an overly conservative guess. The financial consequences of the disaster were already becoming evident by May 7, when WIPP-based Department of Energy employee Irene Joo emailed a colleague to speculate about what had gone wrong at LANL.

She wrote: “I expect we will all pay the price.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

This article has been amended to reflect the following correction:

Correction:  Nov. 17, 2014

An earlier version of this story referred to a lawsuit filed by a WIPP worker. The lawsuit stems from a Feb. 5 incident, not the Feb. 14 radiation leak as stated in the story and the reference has been removed from this version.

(20) comments

Pete Prince

Mistakes were made for sure! Beginning with the biggest mistake which was the aversion to increased cost associated with proper documentation of the waste back when the waste stream was created. At that time the cold war was raging and thoughts of doing a better job on disposal were cast aside as too expensive. Now we are left with an extremely difficult task of disposing of drums with contents that are largely unknown, hence the AK moniker, but potentially very dangerous as this incident exposes. Will we as a society ever learn that its easier to prevent the mess then to clean it up later?
If you are ready to jump on the "dump LANL" bandwagon I suggest that directing your energy to what is occurring right now, all around us, will yield bigger results. Look at the similarity to the situation with the resistance of oil and gas industry to disclose the ingredient list of their magic fracking fluids. Or to the efforts to allow mining companies to leave their waste piles and pits untreated. Sure its easy to say that the costs are higher if proper procedures are followed. Higher then what? How much does it cost to clean up an aquifer? How much are you willing to pay for water to drink when there is no clean water available? I ask again will we ever learn?

Dee Finney

We are truly living on borrowed time with the menace of the lab hovering above us all. When will we wake up and realize that now is the time to convert the lab to sustainable research and clean up the radioactive waste for good. It's very hard to live in the "national sacrifice area" and wonder when the next accident will happen?

Steve Salazar

I wonder if tests were replicated with simulated waste, using that fill to cover the drum vent, preventing it from breahing, and causing the pressure to rise.

Chris Mechels

The practice of "cutting corners" and "cheating on oversight" is not new at LANL, and goes back decades. I worked for LANL twice and got bruised up a bit, when I tried to actually "comply" with DOE directives rather than "lie" about our compliance. The word that comes to mind for the LANL attitude toward DOE is "contempt" and it shows. I was glad to retire in 1994, at age 55. Too much corruption for this farm boy.

One particular tragic incident which resulted from the LANL culture was the Efren Martinez electrocution in 1996. Efren was an electrician at LANL who got into a 13KV line where the plans didn't show it. He never regained consciousness.

Efren died as a result of two LANL Staff Members, Wally and Neil, who decided to bypass normal safety procedures to make schedule. The "created" a special procedure, by pretending that "construction" was actually "maintenance". Their ruse then included creating "special" work orders, which bypassed the Groups who normally reviewed such work for safety. This is all a fact, well documented in the post accident Type A investigation.

The result was Efren died. His family sued and got $13.5 million in a settlement, paid in our tax dollars. Wally and Neil got promoted and had nice careers.

There is nothing new about such things at LANL. Only the names change. The victims are forgotten.

joe martinez

I didn't join the chorus of boos against LANL in my comment so the paper guys deleted it...At least they could post a "commnet deleted" notice....I still maintain no one is qualified to say LANL is corrupt from top to bottom....

Loyda Martinez

What joemtz doesn't understand is that there is a expectation that smart, intelligent people will care enough to do their jobs properly, such as double checking, triple checking during a job function that relies on paying attention to even such a mundane activity such as inorganic vice organic chemistry. Just because the explosion occurred inside the WIPP facility and not while that container went through highly populated areas such as Santa Fe scares me. Just because it was one of thousands containers doesn't make me feel less afraid and just because there is a risk to being on a highway doesn't make me less afraid. And it isn't because my hair stands on end. It IS because no one can duplicate the event, it IS because there is another container that we know of that can explode, and it IS because the reporter has very effectively written and described a Barney Phyfe culture of incompetence, complacency and the Dick Cheney model of management.

joe martinez

Liberals are just smarter than the rest of us...It's in your DNA....Simple as that....I wish I could read minds like liberals can.....

Jim Piver

Referring to the photo at the top of the article: Can someone tell me the meaning of the symbol on the barrel- a triangle with a solid circle inside and a solid circle at the top point? I 've seen it on other containers that appeared to contain nuclear material.

Pat Shackleford

I can't find a replica of that within the database of commonly used radioactivity symbols. However, when the image you refer to is rotated 90 degrees clockwise, it appears that some can-handler along the way used a "sharpie" to draw an "angry bird", incorporating traditional radioactive symbols, a triangle, and two circles for eyes. Case closed, you're welcome.

Tony Heaton

Continuation of previous post:

When I left, Group Leader Iwanchuck had ben replaced by a friend of Grider's who had come from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This new group leader stated that he must continue the policies of Gider. This is an example of how the corruption is not just at on DOE lab but an embedded culture within DOE.

The HR/employee concerns department is no better. The pretend to be there for the employee but it doesn't take long they are there to protect LANS and the status quo. The pretend to do investigations but the pretense most always ends in a finding for LANS. Bring a suit against the lab is next to impossible. The Lab has no downside to fighting such suits. While the employee must foot the bill for a suit, the lab legal department is fully funded by the Federal taxpayer. Again, the lab has no downside.

Before I retired in June of 2014, I had hopes that the new Director, Charlie McMillan would be different. However, he turned out to be as corrupt as the rest. I would not be surprised if he comes out and says the allegations presented are all false. LANS and McMillan will continue the culture of corruption. The will lie to protect the mission at all costs!

Until a sufficient number of laboratory employees decide that honor outweighs a paycheck, the corruption will continue!

Tony Heaton

I worked at Los Alamos National Lab as a student from 1996 to 1998, 1998 to 2000 as a Contractor and 2000 to June 10, 2014 as a lab employee. I experienced the corruption from group to AD level. The corruption permeated all levels of management. I contacted the Department of Energy Inspector General on a few occasions and their response was less than comforting. They didn't seam to care about corruption, only protecting the “mission.” Group and division leaders abuse workers with impunity. The Security group is headed by one of the more corrupt person I have met. Corruption seems to be the first language of these people. I even contacted Current Senator, then Congressman Udall and his staff was as corrupt as LANL management. I was not allowed to meet with the Congressman because his staff protected him. LANL is a culture of corruption. I don't know an AD that is not corrupt, but I don't know them all, just most in the Information Technology field. So you can verify that I worked there, Associate Director Carolyn Zerkle and Division Leader Gary Grider and Group Leader Paul Iwanchuk are a few of the corrupt ones I've dealt with.

George Schwarz

I worked at the Los Alamos Monitor for 2½ years and learned that the lab’s culture from top to bottom is corrupt. The public information people flat out lie and do so with impunity because the top echelons of the lab not only condone it, they encourage it. The Monitor is the paper that should have broken this story, but cowardice runs deep on DP Road. The New Mexican has done a great public service with this story.
The lab needs to be flushed from top to bottom and a corporate culture of integrity must replace the current one. Think about this: What else are lab people lying about and hiding?

James Wilson

"Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees...".

Is this a typo? Sixteen hundred degrees?

Comment deleted.
Erich Kuerschner

My view as well, as that of I.I. Rabi, who in 1983, at LANL's 40th reunion, said (in response to a question of why doesn't LANL convert to doing something socially useful, responded:

"The only way LANL could ever be converted is with a bulldozer."

Stewart Udall, From NY Times 8 June 1993

"There is nothing comparable in our history to the deceit and the lying that took place as a matter of official Government policy in order to protect this industry," said Mr. [Stewart] Udall. "Nothing was going to stop them and they were willing to kill our own people."

"The atomic weapons race and the secrecy surrounding it crushed American democracy," Mr. Udall said in a interview. "It induced us to conduct Government according to lies. It distorted justice. It undermined American morality. Until the cold war, our country stood for something.”

Staci Benni

We tried to get people to "wake up to WIPP" when the DOE was having hearings. Only the ignorant and greedy would ignore the very large possibility of human error and in this case, outright lapse of responsibility.
Only now do the people at Carlsbad who were so eager to have WIPP located there for the jobs get it that WIPP is not safe. We used to say Trust no one over 30. Today it is Trust no Government.

Chris Mechels

As a former LANL employee, retired in 1994 from my last assignment on the Yucca Mountain Project, I agree with the LA Monitor guys comments below. The LANL culture is corrupt from top to bottom, and those employees who try to fix the problems get pushed aside or worse. An opportunity to "clean up" LANL was missed in 2005 when Senator Domenici intervened to make sure the contract stayed with UC (University of California). The "new" contractor LANS is simply UC repackaged, with UC as Chair of the LANS board with the power to appoint the LANL Director. The Director, in turn has power over LANL management. In other words, UC "runs" LANL still, or "does not run" LANL, it provides "cover" for LANL and prevents effective reforms.

The DOE/NNSA, for good or for bad, is our (taxpayers) representative, the "customer" of LANL which provides a service. The historic problem is that LANL, because of Domenici, et al, has more "clout" than DOE, so real oversight is impossible. LANL can get DOE "beat up" with a phone call.

I have direct experience of LANL managers lying to the DOE about our compliance with agreed DOE orders. When I objected to these outright lies, in a meeting attended by 20 LANL staff members, I was cut off and ignored. Such lying has become part of their culture. LANL "is" a lie.

Greg Mello

This is a great story, and there is much more to tell.

For non-chemists, the magnitude of the stupidity involved in the choice of ingredients added to these drums may not be apparent. At least four incompatible materials were variously added to thousands of drums. Dozens of so-called professionals were directly involved, saw, or knew about these incompatible materials, which were ordered and used in large quantities over a long period of time. At one point, LANL halted treatment and packaging for months, knowing it had to re-package because it knew one of the materials was incompatible and potentially reactive.

But halting repackaging AGAIN would have been too embarrassing, and would have caused LANL to blow through its deadline. So nobody stopped it.

The article does not mention that this narrow cleanup deadline was itself a fallback after LANL (i.e. LANS, the corporation) and NNSA admitted that the LANL cleanup as a whole would not meet binding deadlines. So together they agreed to an INFORMAL, NONBINDING deadline for just a small part of the waste, which is now shot as well.

The treatment processes LANS used were illegal as well as dangerous. Shipping the waste was illegal. Providing the fallacious manifest that accompanied the drums was illegal. Failing to provide accurate information after the fact when NMED asks for it was and is illegal. LANS maintains that years of illegal actions resulted from a "typo." Right.

Pat Shackleford

Great article. Thanks for your extensive research, Patrick.

Erich Kuerschner

Ditto. Appreciate the excellent reporting Patrick, and kudos to the SFNM for hiring you and permitting this reporting.


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