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LANL waste contractor denies cat litter role in WIPP radiation leak

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An operations manager for EnergySolutions, which packages waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory, says his company believes nothing it added to waste drums caused a radioactive leak that shut down the nation’s main nuclear waste disposal plant.

“We followed the procedures that were provided to us, and I think LANL did their due diligence,” said Miles Smith, EnergySolutions’ vice president of Southwest operations.

Theories about the leak have focused on whether absorbent cat litter or neutralizers added to Los Alamos drums caused a hot chemical reaction that cracked the lid on at least one container at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

The federal Department of Energy has been investigating why and exactly what occurred at WIPP on Feb. 14, when radiation escaped the deep underground repository. The state Environment Department is looking into whether state safety regulations were violated.

“We don’t believe the combination we put into the drums, we don’t think it has the ability to start burning on its own,” said Smith. “It needs an outside source of ignition.”

One idea under consideration since the leak is that a switch from inorganic to organic cat litter may have caused or fueled a hot reaction that breached the waste drum.

Smith said there has been a misunderstanding – both the old and new cat litters were “organic,” he said. The old litter consisted of plastic pellets while the new one was wheat-based. Plastics are considered organic because like living things they are carbon-based, Smith said.

In any case, he said, “It doesn’t look like the kitty litter was the cause.” He said the absorbent materials “added fuel that was combustible, but I don’t believe they caused the explosion or the fire.”

Smith said LANL approved the cat-litter switch. “It’s their procedure,” he said. He said that the waste-acceptance team at WIPP also had a chance to review the change. “They got it months before we started processing that waste stream,” Smith said. “They physically signed for it.”

In May, the Environment Department made public emails showing LANL approved EnergySolutions’ use of two other products used to neutralize the pH balance of drum contents sent to WIPP. Some experts say the products contain ingredients widely known to cause a heat reaction when combined with the drums’ other content, specifically nitrate salts. Nitrates and organic matter are known to oxidize, a reaction that generates heat.

But Smith said Wednesday that one of those products, an acid neutralizer, is not a problem for the mix that’s in the transuranic waste drums. “Its safety sheet says it is not incompatible,” he said.

The other product, a “base neutralizer,” is made by the same company and is in fact incompatible with nitrates in WIPP waste, he said. But this neutralizer wasn’t used in the WIPP-bound barrels, he said.

Smith said EnergySolutions handles many different waste streams and that the approval LANL gave for the base neutralizer was a more general OK to use the product, not specifically for the drums now at the center of the WIPP investigation.

“We think there are other things that caused the drum to later catch fire,” Smith said, adding that there “are a lot of things out there” to investigate, including a truck fire and an electrical surge in the days before the leak.

WIPP, the nation’s primary permanent storage facility for the leftovers of Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing, has been shut down since the truck fire occurred underground Feb. 5. Following the Feb. 14 radiation leak, WIPP managers have said the plant could be closed for up to three years, leaving the nation nowhere to send certain types of nuclear waste. They also say the truck fire and the radiation leak are unrelated.

Smith said EnergySolutions, a multinational company based in Salt Lake City, has provided investigators with “run sheets” and complete records on every container that went to WIPP.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a WIPP watchdog, said Smith’s comments are consistent with those of state Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn at a recent legislative meeting, but noted that no one from LANL or its operator, Los Alamos National Security LLC, has weighed in.

“I would say I’ve always been skeptical of the kitty litter issue,” he said. “Anybody with a cat knows that kitty litter itself is not combustible. It’s got to be kitty litter and something else.”

LANL said Wednesday that EnergySolutions was awarded subcontracts in 2009 for the remediation of legacy transuranic waste. It had no comment on Smith’s statements about LANL approving the cat litter switch and other matters.

EnergySolutions cuts jobs at Los Alamos

Also Wednesday, EnergySolutions confirmed that it has cut about 100 jobs at Los Alamos – from about 140 positions to 39 – since March.

Miles Smith, EnergySolutions’ vice president of Southwest operations, said the first round came as the company scaled back when it appeared that plans to move to WIPP all of 3,706 cubic feet of waste that has been stored above ground at LANL were winding down, under a June 30 deadline set in a state-lab agreement from two years ago.

More jobs were cut when LANL had to use budgeted funds to ship containers to a Texas location instead of WIPP after the Feb. 14 leak. The drum shipments have since stopped altogether.

Then 26 people were laid off and 14 others accepted jobs out of state on Monday, again because lab funding has been diverted to the WIPP investigation and continued waste storage in Texas. “LANL has been great to us, but when the money goes somewhere else, it has to come out of somebody,” Smith said.

Española Mayor Alice Lucero, chair of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, said in a news release: “There is no question that the health and safety of the workers at WIPP and everyone in the surrounding community is the number one priority regarding the radiological incident at WIPP. However, these job losses and their impact deserve attention.”