Delivery alert

There may be an issue with the delivery of your newspaper. This alert will expire at NaN. Click here for more info.

Recover password

WIPP woes due to wrong word?

LOS ALAMOS – In the spring of 2012, a Los Alamos National Laboratory team spelled out how difficult nuclear waste should be treated at the lab.

Instead, those good intentions morphed into the makings of a disaster, a report by the federal Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General shows.

Within a couple of months, according to senior lab officials, an important error occurred when the note-taker at a meeting mistakenly wrote down “an organic” instead of “inorganic.”

The mistake was compounded by a failure to catch it in subsequent reviews, the LANL officials said.

The Inspector General’s report on how a waste drum from LANL popped open and contaminated the nation’s repository for certain types of nuclear waste says the errors likely would have been discovered if an appropriate “subject matter expert” at LANL had reviewed procedural changes.

Those revisions led to the addition of organic, wheat-based cat litter into radioactive waste barrels containing nitrate salts – essentially, the recipe for an explosive.

The senior LANL officials who talked to the Journal said that no high-level scientist with sufficient expertise was ever involved in the procedural review.

The lab officials also said that lack of scientist input was an example of a disconnect between LANL’s high-level science work and its other blue-collar, factory-like functions – like processing and packing the waste left over from nuclear weapons production.

Various government and news reports over the past year have revealed, discussed and debated how a chemical reaction in one of the barrels from LANL caused the drum to breach in February 2014. That drum was one of many that included the organic cat litter called Swheat Scoop inappropriately added to wastes containing oxidizing nitrates.

The radioactive contamination from the burst drum has shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, where waste processed at Los Alamos and other sites around the country is sent for underground disposal.

WIPP’s reopening is expected to cost a half-billion dollars and DOE says the facility might not resume full operations until 2018.

This barrel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad breached a year ago, resulting in contamination that has shut down WIPP. The barrel was packed at Los Alamos. (Courtesy of the Department of Energy)

This barrel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad breached a year ago, resulting in contamination that has shut down WIPP. The barrel was packed at Los Alamos. (Courtesy of the Department of Energy)

Reason for change?

A full-blown DOE report on what caused the WIPP accident is still pending as the leak’s first anniversary comes up next week. No one from LANL or DOE has publicly offered a reason for why the idea of changing the mixture in the waste drums ever came up for discussion in the first place. Senior lab officials now say, however, that they are close to what they believe is a complete and final explanation.

The series of events laid out in the IG’s report indicates that the combustible mix of Swheat Scoop and nitrate salts was the mistaken result after LANL’s Carlsbad Operations Difficult Waste Team came up with a plan to replace another organic material that was being used to absorb liquids in the nitrate wastes.

Contrary to other reports, the Inspector General’s office suggests in its account that a proper absorbent – inorganic cat litter or another clay-based desiccant – was not being used on the waste stream packaged at Los Alamos in the months before the switch to Swheat Scoop. The IG’s report says LANL was using an organic polymer absorbent, also termed a hazard, “prior to the ‘organic’ kitty litter.”

But officials say the proper zeolite clay material, which can produce more dust and costly clean-up requirements than other absorbents, had been used in the past. LANL’s “acceptable knowledge” documentation on the nitrate waste stream called for “kitty litter (clay)” even after the organic litter’s use began.

The IG’s September report points to a May 5, 2012, paper prepared by LANL’s Carlsbad Operations Difficult Waste Team as a starting point.

The team’s paper specifies the use of “Kitty Litter/Zeolite clay” to treat nitrate salts arriving at the Los Alamos facility that processes transuranic waste – leftovers from nuclear weapons work typically consisting of clothing, tools, rags, debris and other mostly plutonium-tainted radioactive material. The nitrates that had to be dealt with are a byproduct of extracting plutonium.

The white paper shows that the LANL facility had been using an absorbent product called Waste Lock 770 to soak up gallons of free liquids that came with nitrate waste or to treat nitrate salts that were just wet.

But Waste Lock 770, described on its maker’s website as a granular, “super-absorbent polymer,” or plastic, was itself said to be problematic, according to the IG’s report.

The addition of Swheat Scoop wheat-based cat litter into barrels of radioactive waste at Los Alamos created a hazardous mix with nitrate salts in the waste stream.

The addition of Swheat Scoop wheat-based cat litter into barrels of radioactive waste at Los Alamos created a hazardous mix with nitrate salts in the waste stream.

Nitrate hazard not new

Mixing oxidizing nitrates with organic materials – and plastics, made from oil, are carbon-based and therefore chemically organic, like plants and animals – has long been recognized as hazardous. Nuclear waste explosions or fires dating back to the 1950s have been blamed on such chemical combinations.

The Inspector General’s harshly critical report says LANL apparently missed “readily available” information about the hazards. Another problem: LANL’s written procedures that existed before 2012 did not identify the polymer organic absorbent it was using on nitrates.

Perhaps more troubling, the procedures also failed to even mention the carbon-based polymer’s use in processing waste, according to the report.

A Difficult Waste Team official informed the IG’s investigators that, in 2012, LANL was notified to discontinue using the organic polymer “as an absorbent with nitrate salts because of the possible dangers of mixing organic materials with nitrates.”

There’s a hole in the IG report at this point: Who notified LANL to stop using Waste Lock 770 is not addressed. The report said LANL officials couldn’t provide documentation for the reason for discontinuing use of the plastic absorbent other than a March 2012 email.

That message was from LANL to Utah-based EnergySolutions, the private contractor processing waste for delivery to WIPP, “directing a hold on all processing and characterization of salt-bearing waste.”

From there, as described by the Inspector General:

May 2012: The Difficult Waste Team issued its white paper specifying that “Kitty Litter/Zeolite clay” be used to treat nitrate salts.

The waste team, according to a copy made available by the New Mexico Environment Department, spelled out specific concentrations of cat litter/zeolite clay that were to be added to the nitrate wastes to replace the plastic Waste Lock 770. (The team also noted that there had been no documentation of how much Waste Lock was added to drums with nitrate salts and that the salts also hadn’t been measured for weight or volume.)

The team recommended three specific brands of zeolite clay products – not cat litter – that “may be more efficient” than “ordinary kitty litter” in rendering the nitrates into a non-oxidizing solid not prone to chemical reactions.

But, perhaps fatally, the waste team’s paper never specifically used the word “inorganic” as an adjective to describe the cat litter that could be used.

July 2012: LANL decided to revise its waste processing procedure consistent with the waste team’s directions to include “Kitty litter/Zeolite.”

While neither the Difficult Waste Team’s white paper nor LANL’s written decision to revise the rules used the word “organic,” the resulting new procedures ended up specifically incorporating “organic” cat litter – precisely the kind of material that shouldn’t be added to nitrate salts.

An official with contractor EnergySolutions told the Inspector General’s team this year that it was someone from the LANL Difficult Waste Team who “verbally approved” the use of organic cat litter during a meeting. But a waste team official contended “the term ‘organic’ was not used and that he did not believe that anyone else used the term,” the IG’s report states.

A LANL “procedure writer” then relied on hand-written notes “that called for an organic absorbent to process nitrate salt drums,” says the report.

This is the mistake that lab officials told the Journal came about when the meeting note-taker mistakenly wrote “an organic” instead of “inorganic.”

The IG’s report says a proper expert review could have discovered the mistakes and the “inherently hazardous” mixture planned for the waste drums.

August 2012: Nitrate waste processing at LANL, which had been on hold since March, resumed under procedures mandating the use of organic cat litter. It was one of the drums with the resulting wheat cat litter/nitrates mix that breached and contaminated WIPP a year ago.

As has been previously reported, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board disclosed late last year that LANL also made another significant procedural change, without the standard safety review, when it was confronted with treating the nitrate salts. This change removed requirements to stop waste processing altogether and inform management if “Class 1 oxidizers” like nitrates were encountered in the waste stream.

It’s unclear from the documents if any barrels containing Waste Lock 770 are now considered hazardous in any way. A July LANL report says 60 barrels containing the organic polymer absorbent were in the WIPP room where the barrel with cat litter leaked, but that the nitrates in those barrels are “solidified in cement” and “Waste Lock 770 will not combust under normal circumstances.”

This image from the website of the makers of Waste Lock 770 shows what happened to a container full of liquid two minutes after a spoonful of the polymer absorbent was added. Waste Lock was added to some drums of radioactive waste at Los Alamos.

This image from the website of the makers of Waste Lock 770 shows what happened to a container full of liquid two minutes after a spoonful of the polymer absorbent was added. Waste Lock was added to some drums of radioactive waste at Los Alamos.

Deadline loomed

All of this happened as LANL was trying to meet a goal, set in a non-binding agreement with the state Environment Department, to remove more than 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste from above-ground storage at Los Alamos and get it to WIPP by June 2014. The deal had been struck in January 2012 after the Las Conchas wildfire of the previous summer was the second big forest fire in about a decade to burn near the waste storage site at LANL.

The state agreed it would consider relaxing deadlines for broader and more difficult waste cleanup at Los Alamos, established in a binding consent decree, if LANL got all the above-ground waste to WIPP on time. Gov. Susana Martinez went to WIPP in June 2012 to celebrate the 1,000th shipment to Carlsbad. That effort has been halted with the shutdown at WIPP.

Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, head of the DOE’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, said in a written response to the IG’s report that the report’s findings are “consistent with findings from internal assessments,” that DOE “shares the concerns listed in the report” and that changes have been made in response.

As a result of the waste drum leak, the state recently fined WIPP and LANL $54 million, but that amount is under negotiation even as state regulators consider levying more fines.

Also, the annual management fee that the federal government pays private contractor Los Alamos National Security LCC to run the lab was slashed by nearly 90 percent, to $6 million, because of the WIPP debacle.

And while there appears to be consensus among investigators that the combination of organics and nitrates was involved in the chemical reaction that closed WIPP, determining how enough heat was generated to start such a reaction reportedly has been problematic.

Also, an acid neutralizer added to the drums has been identified as a potential problem, although the IG’s report says a LANL analysis ruled it out as “the sole mechanism that could explain” the leak at WIPP.

A truck fire that took place at WIPP a few days before the leak initially was ruled out as provoking the chemical reaction, but remains under investigation as a heat source.