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Los Alamos National Laboratory won’t be able to meet a deadline for getting toxic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season peaks, the U.S. Department of Energy said Friday.
In a statement, the department said it has notified the New Mexico Environment Department that it can’t move the last of thousands of barrels of waste containing things like contaminated gloves and tools until officials are sure it is safe.
A canister shipped from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project has been linked to a radiation release Feb. 14 at the underground repository in southeastern New Mexico. Officials are investigating whether hundreds of other barrels from Los Alamos that are currently stored at the West Isolation Pilot Plant, Los Alamos and in West Texas are at risk of releasing radiation.
The waste was packed with cat litter to absorb moisture. Officials are trying to determine whether a switch from inorganic to organic litter is to blame for a chemical reaction with nitrate salts that caused the accident that contaminated 22 workers and indefinitely shuttered the plant.
Deputy Undersecretary David Klaus said the energy department has “made great strides in cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” but it is halting shipments “until we can reassure the public that it is safe to do so.”
“This was a tough decision to make and the Department remains committed to solving this issue and resuming shipments,” Klaus said.
The New Mexico Environment Department said it “was disappointed but not surprised,” noting the top priority is public safety.
Los Alamos spokesman Matt Nerzig said, “the laboratory fully supports the Department of Energy’s efforts towards safely reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). We are determined to meet our obligations to the state of New Mexico and must ascertain what caused the release at WIPP to prevent any recurrence.
“In order to enhance investigations underway here at Los Alamos, we have joined the experts from a group of five national laboratories to determine the cause of the radiological release.”
The agreement for removal of the waste by June 30 was reached after a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property three years ago, raising concerns about the thousands of barrels of waste that were being stored outside. There are still 57 barrels on the campus, which officials have repacked into special containers and are now storing under a dome with 24-hour monitoring and fire protection systems.
NMED released the following statement concerning LANL not being able to make the deadline.
“The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is disappointed, but not surprised by today’s announcement that the Department of Energy will not be able to successfully complete the 3706 Campaign to remove all of the above-ground transuranic (TRU) waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) by the June 30, 2014 deadline,” the statement read.
“The current circumstances at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant dictate that the highest priority of NMED continues to be ongoing protection of public safety and the environment by ensuring all precautions are being taken by the U.S. Department of Energy during the investigation into the February 14th radiological release.
“The state will review potential options in regards to the larger Consent Order for all legacy waste clean-up at LANL, including DOE’s track record at LANL.
“While the situation at WIPP has temporarily halted the 3706 Campaign, DOE has removed over 4,000 above-ground TRU waste containers over the past two years as a result of the Campaign (93 percent of the 3706 Campaign TRU Waste has been removed). Prior to the Martinez administration, that waste had sat untouched for over a decade on the LANL site. As soon as the WIPP is able to safely resume operations, NMED will aggressively push DOE to complete the 3706 Campaign.”
Meanwhile, It could take two years or more for the federal government to seal off hundreds of potentially dangerous containers at its troubled underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a filing Friday.
Responding to an order from the NMED to detail its plans, the department gave broad ranges that indicate it could take a minimum of about 100 work weeks — and possibly twice that long — to secure the rooms at the now-shuttered plant where more than 350 containers of toxic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs at LANL is stored.
The report notes that the investigation into a Feb. 14 radiation leak that contaminated 22 workers with low-levels of radiation and indefinitely shuttered the Waste Isolation Pilot Project isn’t complete and could affect the work.
A Department of Energy spokeswoman declined to comment on the estimated time frame, which is laid out broadly by giving an estimate of the work days it will take to complete each step.
Flynn issued a statement saying the state would review the plan.