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State demands that DOE seal two rooms at WIPP

The New Mexico Environment Department on Tuesday demanded the federal government seal off two underground storage rooms in a nuclear waste repository to prevent the possibility of another radiation leak.

In its second administrative order to the Department of Energy this week, the state Environment Department is asking for detailed proposals for the “expedited closure” of panel six and part of seven at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

Those panels – large rooms excavated from a deep salt mine to hold nuclear waste – contain drums that are believed to have caused a hot reaction that led to a radiation release on Valentine’s Day. The Environment Department is giving DOE 10 days to submit its proposal.

The May 15 entry into panel seven, room seven produced this photo of a waste container with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

The May 15 entry into panel seven, room seven produced this photo of a waste container with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

Calls to the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office and WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership were not immediately returned Tuesday.


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Waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory has been fingered as the possible culprit. Investigators believe nitrate salts and an organic kitty litter used as an absorbent in the LANL drums may have combined to cause a reaction hot enough to melt sealed containers, allowing radioactive elements to escape.

Nuclear waste is packaged in “streams,” or sets of containers holding similar radioactive and other materials. There are more than 500 drums in the stream of waste potentially containing the dangerous mix of nitrate salts and cat litter.

That number includes some 368 containers at WIPP: 313 in panel six and 55 in panel seven. Another 57 containers are still at LANL, while about 100 are being temporarily stored at Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, which agreed to take waste from LANL while WIPP remains shut down.

The Environment Department said the waste in question “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.”

An administrative order issued Monday requires DOE to present a plan today explaining how it will isolate and secure or treat the 57 containers still being held at LANL.

“Evidence comes in on a daily basis,” said NMED general counsel Jeff Kendall. “The timing of these two orders is the result of the most recent evidence provided to us.”

a00_jd_21may_WIPPclosureHow and when WIPP closes the underground panels has been a long-running issue that predates the facility’s current woes, said Don Hancock, a nuclear waste expert at Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center.

Panels one, two and five are each sealed with a 12-foot concrete explosion isolation wall, while panels three and four are closed with a steel bulkhead and lack the explosion isolation wall.


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“DOE has been saying the more robust requirements were unnecessary,” Hancock said. “A bulkhead keeps people from going in and out, and it doesn’t totally cut off but restricts the air flow supply. That’s not going to be sufficient.”

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn echoed demands made by the public at a recent meeting in Carlsbad for the open panels to be sealed, saying, “I agree those panels need be closed immediately.”

Flynn is scheduled to meet with DOE managers in Washington, D.C., this week, according to a spokesman.

The administrative order asks DOE to provide a schedule for the closure of panel six and part of seven, allowing for the completion of the ongoing investigation in panel seven – where the release is believed to have occurred. Panel six is full but not permanently sealed, while panel seven, which was receiving waste at the time of the release, is only partially filled.