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LANL meeting with safety board reveals concerns

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Officials in charge of safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory have told a federal oversight board what they are doing to make sure the lab isn’t the source of another problem like the disastrous radioactive leak that has shut down the nation’s nuclear waste repository for more than two years.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board wanted to know about emergency response plans, the threat of wildfires at Los Alamos and how oversight has improved since a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos breached at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February 2014.

Officials from the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Safety Administration said the WIPP leak has raised the focus on risk, oversight and emergency planning.

“We do worry about every drum,” Monica Regalbuto, the DOE’s assistant secretary for environmental management, said during the meeting last Tuesday night.

Asked about plans to deal with emergencies, Douglas Hintze, manager of DOE’s Environmental Management Field Office in Los Alamos, said the degree of confidence is adequate, “but not at the level it needs to be – we’re at the walking stage not the running stage.”

The lab has taken additional measures to protect stored waste from wildfires, which have burned through or near Los Alamos twice since 2000, including creating firebreaks and trimming brush. No vegetation over 6 inches high is allowed within 75 feet of a structure holding the riskiest waste containers, officials said.

A focus of the hearing was waste stored and buried at LANL’s Area G and what happens now to 60 other drums still there with contents similar to the one that leaked at WIPP, including nitrate salts left over from purifying plutonium. Officials explained those containers are being kept in a climate-controlled facility and that, in the near future, filtration vents and pressure relief discs will be installed to keep pressure from building up inside the containers.

Regalbuto said the plan is to make the drums as safe as possible for now, then figure out in a peer-reviewed process how to best remediate the waste so it can eventually be sent to WIPP when it reopens, expected to take place later this year. Organic kitty litter that was mistakenly mixed with the nitrate salts to absorb liquids was blamed for the thermal reaction that caused the WIPP leak.

Officials acknowledged that there is an issue with where to store transuranic waste, which includes tools, clothing, lab equipment and other castoffs from plutonium weapons work. That waste is building up at Los Alamos and other weapons complex sites, and some operations could be shut down if the problems with remediating and storing the waste aren’t solved.

Residents and lab critics who got a chance to speak at the end of the four-hour hearing weren’t satisfied with what they heard about corrective action plans and contractor assurance systems. One environmental engineer who lives in Los Alamos, saying that residents there live more “intimately” with radioactive waste than people anywhere else, bemoaned feeling worse about lab safety at the meeting’s end than he had before.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center said rushing ahead has been a problem for both WIPP and LANL. He said the lab was trying to rush to meet a commitment to state environmental regulators to get much of the transuranic waste to WIPP by June 2014 when it mispacked the drum that leaked and now WIPP is rushing to reopen before Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz leaves office early next year.

“That’s not a good reason for it to reopen,” Hancock said. “… That’s not the way to avoid having this same record played over and over again.”

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has brought a “laser focus” to technical safety issues at Los Alamos, but “we really haven’t gotten to” root causes of a poor safety culture at the lab. Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the lab’s belief in its own “exceptionalism” is the problem and that LANL feels it doesn’t have to follow DOE rules.