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Concern over another WIPP drum

SANTA FE – A drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has been singled out as having contents – including a discarded glove containing lead – that are most similar to those in a barrel that popped open due to a chemical reaction in February, causing a radiation leak that has shut down the underground nuclear waste dump.

In a presentation to state legislators Tuesday in Carlsbad, Terry Wallace, Los Alamos National Laboratories’ official in charge of the investigation of what happened at WIPP, said it’s still not known what started the reaction. Previously, lead in the glove from a worker that processed waste has been cited as among the potential igniters.

A second LANL drum with similar contents and which is in an unsealed area of WIPP also is said to have a glove in it, Wallace disclosed at the Tuesday meeting.

“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,” Wallace said, according to a report in the Carlsbad Current-Argus.

No additional comment was available from LANL on Wednesday.

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, part of the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, said Wednesday, “I think there is frustration among legislators and the Carlsbad community that eight months after this happened, we still don’t know the cause.”

He said there’s also concern that the WIPP area where the second, similar drum is stored has not been sealed and that the Department of Energy has not presented a promised “recovery plan” for cleaning up WIPP and getting it reopened.

Wallace’s power-point presentation says that the waste in the drum that breached and caused the leak that contaminated several of WIPP’s underground hallways and found its way into the environment in low levels came from work at LANL to purify weapons-grade plutonium circa 1985, when it was packed into a “parent drum.”

Last Dec. 4, the waste was processed for transport to WIPP and split into two drums. The one that leaked was placed in its WIPP storage area Jan. 31 and it breached just two weeks later, on Feb. 14, a few days after a truck fire at WIPP, which officials have previously said was unrelated to the leak.

LANL has since conducted hundreds of experiments of potential chemical reactions with nitrate salts that are part of the waste stream. A switch from plastic to wheat-based cat litter to absorb liquids during the pre-WIPP remediation process has been cited as a possible source of the reaction, as well as the glove containing lead.

Wallace’s presentation says, “We can explain energetic reactions, but not initiation.” His report says reaction in a mix of the kitty litter with nitrates occurs at 572 degrees; a combination for acids, salts, metals and organics reacts at the boiling point, 212 degrees.

“LANL did not consider the chemical reactions that unique combinations of radionuclides, acids, salts, liquids and organics might create,” the report states. It adds that the lab didn’t comply with its permit for treating and characterizing waste, including the areas of “neutralization and treatment” and “acceptable knowledge.”

The report says there are 678 remediated drums that are “higher risk” because of the mixtures in the containers. Most are at WIPP, but 113 were sent to an Andrews, Texas, facility shortly after the February leak and 57 still require additional processing at Los Alamos.

Of the 678, 16 have absorbed free liquid with pH levels similar to the one that leaked, eight of those have absorbed free liquid with “organic liquid neutralizer” – an apparent reference to wheat-based kitty litter – and just two of those eight have gloves containing lead. One of these two drums is the one that leaked.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Environment Department provided this statement: “We can simply say all drums that have similar constituents to the breached drum have been isolated at LANL and/or Waste Control Specialists (in Texas) and are being monitored by DOE. The Environment Department instructed DOE to take these extra precautions several months ago and we have been informed such protective measures are in place.”

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