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Photos show cracked LANL container at WIPP

SANTA FE, N.M. — A radiation leak at the government’s troubled nuclear waste dump has been linked to a waste container shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials said Friday, raising questions about the safety of other barrels being stored on the lab’s northern New Mexico campus and at a temporary site in West Texas.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan, in a memo Friday to lab employees, said Los Alamos “is fully cooperating” with state and federal officials and has taken extra precautions to ensure that similar waste drums at the lab and those sent to Waste Control Specialists in Texas “are in a safe and controlled configuration.”

“Based on this,” he wrote, “we do not believe there is any imminent threat to the safety of our employees, the public, or the environment at this time.”

Watchdog Don Hancock, however, said that until more is known about the breach, “we can’t have assurances.”

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In a statement, the U.S. Department of Energy said pictures from the latest entry into the half-mile deep Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico confirm that a container from Los Alamos has a cracked lid and evidence of heat damage.

Officials last week zeroed in on the containers from Los Alamos, prompting officials to suspend shipments of waste from Los Alamos to the temporary site in West Texas.

Los Alamos is under orders to remove thousands of such barrels of toxic waste from outdoor storage on a mesa. The presence of the waste, and its potential dangers, came to light three summers ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property. The lab had been on target to have the last of the containers shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by June 30 when the repository was shuttered by the leak Feb. 14 that contaminated 22 workers with low levels of radiation.

Last week, Department of Energy officials said leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. Among the possibilities that officials have since confirmed are being studied: a switch in the kitty litter-type substance used to absorb moisture before the containers are sealed and shipped to the nuclear-waste dump.

“While many details remain unknown,” McMillan said, “additional investigative work is being planned to pinpoint the cause of the breached drum, the radiological release, and whether other containers were involved in the release. Experts from DOE, WIPP, Los Alamos, and Savannah River National Laboratory are working together to establish the range of possibilities that may have caused this event. ”

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the federal government’s only permanent repository for low-level nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratories and other federal facilities. The containers include things like gloves, tools and protective clothing worn by lab workers.

Nine days befor e the release, a truck hauling salt in the mine caught fire. But officials have said the fire was far from the waste-handling area and that the events were likely unrelated.

Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed them on a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site.

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Federal officials say a radiation leak at the government’s troubled nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico has been linked to waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Officials Friday said pictures from the latest entry into the half-mile deep Waste Isolation Pilot Project confirm that a container from Los Alamos has a cracked lid and evidence of heat damage.

Officials last week said the leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. Among the possibilities that officials have since confirmed are being studied: a switch in the type of kitty litter used to absorb moisture before the containers are sealed and shipped to WIPP.

The repository has been shuttered since the mysterious release on Feb. 14 contaminated 22 workers with low levels or radiation.

The federal Department of Energy provided this statement:

“Since the February 14 radiological release, the Department and its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have been working deliberately to safely determine the cause of the release. The team that entered the underground facility yesterday was able to get additional visual evidence that shows a damaged waste container, identified as one from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“`In the new pictures, the LANL container has a cracked lid and shows evidence of heat damage. Workers will continue investigating to determine what caused the container breach and if any other containers were involved or damaged,'” said a DOE spokesperson.

LANL director Charles McMillan sent a message to all lab personnel Friday afternoon.

It says: “I’d like to bring you up to speed on the latest developments related to the radiological incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M. Last evening, we were notified that photographic evidence collected from yesterday’s entry into the WIPP showed a potential breach and heat damage to a Los Alamos drum.

“The Laboratory is fully cooperating with WIPP, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the State of New Mexico. My top priority – and the top priority of DOE – is to ensure the safety of our employees, the community, and the environment.

“Additional Safety Precautions: We have already taken additional precautionary measures to ensure that similar waste drums here at the Lab and those sent to Waste Control Specialists in Texas are in a safe and controlled configuration. Based on this, we do not believe there is any imminent threat to the safety of our employees, the public, or the environment at this time.

“Further Analysis and Investigation: While many details remain unknown, additional investigative work is being planned to pinpoint the cause of the breached drum, the radiological release, and whether other containers were involved in the release. Experts from DOE, WIPP, Los Alamos, and Savannah River National Laboratory are working together to establish the range of possibilities that may have caused this event.

“We will continue to keep you informed as the investigation proceeds.’

 

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