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A radiation leak at the government’s troubled nuclear waste dump has been linked to a waste container shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials said Friday, raising questions about the safety of other barrels being stored on the lab’s northern New Mexico campus and at a temporary site in West Texas.
Lab Director Charlie McMillan, in a memo Friday to lab employees, said Los Alamos “is fully cooperating” with state and federal officials and has taken extra precautions to ensure that similar waste drums at the lab and those sent to Waste Control Specialists in Texas “are in a safe and controlled configuration.”
“Based on this,” he wrote, “we do not believe there is any imminent threat to the safety of our employees, the public, or the environment at this time.”
But watchdog Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said that until more is known about the breach, “we can’t have assurances.”
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Energy said pictures from the latest entry into the half-mile deep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico confirm that a container from Los Alamos has a cracked lid and evidence of heat damage.
Officials last week zeroed in on the containers from Los Alamos, prompting officials to suspend shipments of waste from Los Alamos to the temporary site in West Texas.
Los Alamos is under orders to remove thousands of such barrels of toxic waste from outdoor storage on a mesa. The presence of the waste, and its potential dangers, came to light three summers ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property. The lab had been on target to have the last of the containers shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by June 30 when the repository was shuttered by the leak Feb. 14 that contaminated 22 workers with low levels of radiation.
Last week, Department of Energy officials said leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. Among the possibilities that officials have since confirmed are being studied: a switch in the kitty litter-type substance used to absorb moisture before the containers are sealed and shipped to the nuclear-waste dump.
“Since the Feb. 14 radiological release, the Department and its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have been working deliberately to safely determine the cause of the release. The team that entered the underground facility yesterday was able to get additional visual evidence that shows a damaged waste container, identified as one from Los Alamos National Laboratory,” according to a DOE release.
“In the new pictures, the LANL container has a cracked lid and shows evidence of heat damage. Workers will continue investigating to determine what caused the container breach and if any other containers were involved or damaged,” a DOE spokesperson said.
McMillan said further investigative work is being planned to pinpoint the cause of the breached drum.
“Experts from DOE, WIPP, Los Alamos, and Savannah River National Laboratory are working together to establish the range of possibilities that may have caused this event,” McMillan said. “
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the federal government’s only permanent repository for low-level nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratories and other federal facilities. The containers include things like gloves, tools and protective clothing worn by lab workers.
During previous trips into the underground facility, WIPP teams identified a set of 55-gallon drums and waste boxes that showed evidence of heat damage and focused their efforts on those drums during yesterday’s entry.
The investigation is focused on gathering additional photographic and forensic evidence from Room 7 in Panel 7, where the radiological release originated. Experts from the Department of Energy Accident Investigation Board, WIPP, LANL, and the Savannah River National Laboratory are also completing an in-depth analysis of the visuals and will continue analyzing LANL waste similar to what was in the breached container.
The Department is also working with LANL and Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas – where similar waste containers are temporarily stored – to ensure that waste containers there are properly handled for the safety of their employees and communities.