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Editorial: WIPP report details string of management mistakes

The list of mistakes that led up to the 2014 Valentine’s Day radiation leak at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository is long. They point directly at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE’s appointed Accident Investigation Board last week released its final report of its investigation into the leak and other safety issues.

The report lays out a pattern of arrogance, neglect and apparent ignorance of the science required to safely process nuclear waste for permanent storage in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southeastern New Mexico.

According to earlier reports and this investigation, the lid on one of many drums packed at LANL and shipped to WIPP cracked open as a result of a hot reaction from being packed with nitrate salts and organic wheat-based cat litter used to absorb liquids. Radiation was released into the underground waste dump and into the above-ground environment, contaminating nearly two dozen workers with low levels of radiation.

Among the most damning findings:

  • The radiation leak was completely preventable. “Lessons were not learned” that would have prevented mixing yet another organic material with the oxidizing nitrates and creating the potential for combustion.
  • Despite prior knowledge that nitrate salts should not be mixed with organic matter, managers ignored workers who questioned why organic litter was being used. One employee said that when workers questioned “the logic” of using organic cat litter, “they were told to focus on their area of expertise and not to worry about other areas of the procedure.”
  • Waste processing managers didn’t listen to workers at Los Alamos who raised concerns about foam and neon smoke coming from drums and “did not fully understand the hazards related to waste processing.”
  • The board found that “several of the workers and a few hot line calls indicated that some of the managers at LANL were not receptive to bad news and would retaliate in response to reported issues.”

Investigators also blamed LANL contractor Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium including the Bechtel Corp. and the University of California, for not implementing required controls. And it criticized DOE headquarters and its Los Alamos and Carlsbad field offices for not making sure LANL followed adequate waste packaging procedures.

Granted, LANL was under serious time pressure from the state to clean up waste from nuclear weapons work, and WIPP is the only game in town right now. But this is a national scientific lab that failed to apply its own scientific expertise to a critical task.

LANL director Charles McMillan in a memo to LANL staff wrote “We now know from the investigations that if LANL had followed certain basic steps, this event would not have happened. … ”

Today, hundreds of drums packed with the incompatible materials that led to the leak are sitting in WIPP. It’s past time that LANL and the DOE learn those critical lessons needed to prevent another – and potentially – more dangerous breach.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.



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