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LANL months away from renewing nuclear waste shipments

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

When a southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository reopens in the coming weeks following a nearly three-year hiatus, the drums of nuclear waste at Los Alamos won’t be in line for shipment.

That’s because the Los Alamos National Laboratory is still recovering from its own problems that led to the accident that shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2014 – when LANL drum No. 68660 overheated and burst underground at WIPP, releasing radiation into the salt mine repository and in small amounts into the atmosphere.

Since then, some 60 other drums also containing a potentially combustible mix of an organic cat litter absorbent and nitrate salts have been under 24-hour surveillance at LANL.

Nitrate salts were known to be reactive when mixed with a cellulosic material like organic cat litter; a LANL subcontractor mistakenly switched to the organic version from an inorganic, clay-based absorbent that had caused no problems.

LANL has been spending nearly half its roughly $185 million annual environmental management budget on recovering from the mistakes that led to the WIPP accident, according to Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a group that advocates for the cleanup of nuclear waste at LANL.

With its waste treatment building in “cold standby,” experts say it could be months to more than a year before LANL is ready to ship to WIPP, while the U.S. Department of Energy said last week that WIPP is on track to reopen by year-end.

“Looking at it optimistically, LANL is 18 months or more away from that happening,” said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, a longtime WIPP watchdog. “I know they can’t ship anything in this fiscal year, nor do they have any plans to do so.”

DOE’s Environmental Management field office at Los Alamos says only that “it will be months before LANL is ready to ship again,” according to an emailed response to Journal questions.

EM expects the lab will begin treating the 60 problem drums in the spring of 2017; another 29 drums containing nitrate salts are slated for processing in the summer. Nitrate salts are a byproduct of nuclear weapons production.

The field office, which provides oversight, and contractor LANS have been testing equipment and processes to re-treat the drum contents, while LANS has also been making modifications to the facilities where the waste will be treated, according to an EM newsletter.

“We are continually monitoring these drums to ensure safe storage while we evaluate and test treatment methods to render them safe for long-term storage and disposal,” said EM Field Officer Manager Doug Hintze in the newsletter.

“Once they remediate the drums, the 60 drums, they’ll be safe,” said Scott Kovac, director of research and operations at Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “Everybody can quit sweating that something is going to happen to them.”

Before that work can get underway, LANL faces a series of federal readiness assessments, including at the Waste Characterization Reduction and Repackaging Facility – the official name for the building where drum No. 68660 was improperly treated, packed and shipped to WIPP several years ago.

That building cannot be transitioned to “warm standby … in a timely manner due to a lack of qualified operations personnel and the current operability status of facility equipment,” according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report earlier this month.

A spokesman in the EM office said the issues in the DNFSB report “have either been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.”

LANS is operating under a one-year bridge contract after DOE – following investigations that faulted LANS and a subcontractor for inadvertently packing waste drums with combustible ingredients – decided to end the relationship.

DOE had a call out for bids to run LANL and is expected to select a new contractor in July.

Meanwhile, other sites around the country are ready and waiting to ship to WIPP, particularly Idaho National Laboratory, with more than 600 shipments in the queue, Hancock said.