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Report: NM considers fining LANL another $100M

Journal file

(AP Photo/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Environment Department is considering another $100 million or more in fines against Los Alamos National Laboratory.

And state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn is demanding that the federal Department of Energy – LANL’s parent agency – own up to recent mistakes, including errors leading up to a costly and dangerous accident at the nation’s nuclear waste repository last year, said a report Tuesday by The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor.

The Monitor, which follows the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, quotes Flynn as saying NMED is working on a new “compliance order” aimed at the lab and there will be new fines if the Department of Energy “does not accept accountability for past violations and work with the state.”

The Environment Department recently fined LANL and the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant $54 million for failures connected to a radiation release that took place when a drum of waste processed at Los Alamos ruptured a year ago at WIPP. The contamination has shut down the underground waste storage facility near Carlsbad.

According to the Monitor, Flynn said the additional fines under consideration are just for recent violations at LANL and don’t even address DOE’s concession that it will not meet June deadlines, set years ago in a legally binding consent decree, on goals for broader cleanup of the decades of hazardous waste left at Los Alamos.

“The number is much larger than $100 million, but currently $104 million of that compliance order is based solely on violations for which there is no dispute of fact,” Flynn told the Monitor. “That has nothing to do with consent order liability. That’s another issue.”

The DOE is fighting the $54 million in fines – $36.6 million against LANL and $17.7 million against WIPP – that the state levied in December. DOE claims the state “improperly imposed penalties for violations which did not occur” and that the fines are “grossly disproportionate” to those levied against other entities.

Cleaning up and reopening WIPP is expected to cost a half-billion dollars and full operations may not resume until 2018, officials have said.

Flynn couldn’t be reached by the Journal on Tuesday for additional comment. His staff said he was in Washington to discuss the December fines with DOE. Flynn has said before that additional fines could be on the way, but the $100 million figure had not been specified.

A DOE spokeswoman said Tuesday: “We are committed to addressing the underlying causes that led to the compliance orders and to developing a positive path forward for the re-opening of WIPP and resuming transuranic waste operations at LANL.”

Where any fine money collected from DOE would go remains unclear – an interesting question as the state Legislature struggles with balancing a tight state budget this year and in the future.

Flynn and others also have said they want assurances that any DOE fine payments won’t come from the about $185 million a year LANL has been receiving for hazardous waste cleanup. Community leaders from cities, counties and pueblos, part of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, also are in Washington this week, trying to make the same point. Besides providing environmental remediation, the cleanup money is an economic boost as contract work is doled out.

‘DOE should step up’

Flynn told the Monitor the state wants the DOE “to step up and work with us on a constructive path forward in order to resolve all of the issues that caused this release” of radioactivity at WIPP.

In December, Flynn called the $54 million in fines “very conservative.” The NMED cited numerous violations of permits in connection with the radioactive release at WIPP that contaminated nearly two dozen workers with low levels of radiation. The offending waste drum – plutonium and americium escaped after at least one ruptured – had been improperly remediated and packaged at Los Alamos.

The precise cause of the chemical reaction that caused the drum to pop open has not been disclosed, although senior lab officials have said they believe they are close to a solution. The leak’s one-year anniversary is Saturday.

A September DOE inspector general’s report says a series of errors culminated with “organic” being used to describe the kind of cat litter that should be used to soak up liquids in the waste stream packaged at LANL – when “inorganic” clay litter or another dirt absorbent was what should have been added to waste drums. A note-taker at a meeting erroneously wrote down “an organic” instead of “inorganic” and the mistake made it into written procedures, senior lab officials say.

As a result, a wheat-based litter was mixed with oxidizing nitrate salts – creating a dangerous and potentially explosive combination in many drums sent to WIPP for storage.

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