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LANL identifies second nuclear waste drum like container that was breached at WIPP

CARLSBAD – Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have identified another nuclear waste drum similar to the drum that caused the February’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Terry Wallace Jr., the LANL WIPP recovery leader and principal associate director for global security, testified that the chemical reaction was likely caused by a discarded glovebox glove on Tuesday in front of the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee in Carlsbad.

Because scientists have not been able to re-create the chemical reaction, Wallace said he was unsure about the future of the second drum that currently sits underground in Panel 6 at WIPP.

“I cannot guarantee that second drum won’t go (have a chemical reaction), nor can I guarantee that all conditions are likely to make it go,” he said.

Wallace said that the radiation leak occurred in a LANL waste drum, numbered 68660, because of a chemical reaction and that after continued investigations, LANL has narrowed down the potential problematic waste drums to two.

Temperatures inside waste drum 68660 would have to hit around 572 to 662 degrees Fahrenheit to cause a similar chemical reaction to the leak, Wallace said.

LANL scientists have not been able to replicate the conditions that could have led to the chemical reaction, a problem Wallace called “frustrating.”

“We’ve investigated a large number of reactions, and it’s very difficult to make these drums react,” he said. “The typical reaction that people are focused on – the headline of ‘kitty litter and nitric acid’ is true, but it requires very high temperatures to initiate that, just like we had talked about at the World Trade Center.”

LANL drum 68660 was filled with transuranic nuclear waste that dates to around 1985 from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado.

The original waste drum, or parent drum of 68660, was remediated and packaged on Dec. 4, 2013.

The waste was split into two drums: 68660 and a second drum currently held in Panel 6 at WIPP.

Wallace said that there were originally 14 items that were repackaged into drum 68660 and that its contents included bags of liquid and nitric acid, which was a byproduct of an evaporative process to reclaim plutonium scraps in 1985.

Gloves were also added to the drum when it was repackaged and if they contained lead, the reaction could have helped initiate the radiation leak, Wallace said.

“We also see that there are other reactions that could have taken place on a smaller scale,” Wallace said. “For example, nitric acid interacts and reacts with lead at a much lower temperature. So there’s a series of these reactions that could have taken place that all together could have heated this drum up to the point where you would begin to have a reaction with the organic absorbent.”

State Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said she was “comforted” that it appeared only two of the waste drums from Los Alamos National Laboratory were potentially a problem.

“I think it’s good news that they have isolated it to only two drums. I would have thought there would have been more,” Brown said.

The DOE originally identified 678 waste drums from LANL that matched the signature of the drum that caused the radiation release.

Of the total, 113 drums are being held at the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews County, Texas, 55 are in Panel 7, Room 7 at WIPP, 453 are in Room 6 at WIPP, and 57 still require additional processing at LANL.

LANL drum 68660 was placed underground at WIPP in Panel 7, Room 7 on Jan. 31, 2014 according to Wallace, and 14 days later the drum released trace amounts of americium and plutonium, on Feb. 14.

The DOE is assembling a large device that will be taken underground to further analyze damage to the waste drums that are not in clear view in Panel 7, Room 7, according to Dana Bryson, deputy manager of the DOE Carlsbad Field Office.

Bryson said the agency hopes to begin that step of the investigation in the first few weeks of October.