Report details lab's weaknesses in regard to packing nuke waste

-A A +A

DOE IG > Report blames LANL for WIPP shutdown

By The Staff

A report issued Wednesday by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Energy squarely places blame for the shutdown of the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository on failures at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The inspector general’s office identified several major weaknesses in the lab’s procedures for packing contaminated gloves, tools and other radiological wastes that were destined for permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.
Not all of the lab’s procedures were properly vetted and some procedures didn’t conform with environmental requirements, according to the findings.
The report reinforces the findings of internal reviews done by the lab and the Energy Department after a canister of waste from Los Alamos leaked in one of WIPP’s storage rooms in February, contaminating 22 workers and forcing the indefinite closure of the nuclear waste repository.
“Our review identified several major deficiencies in LANL’s procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed to the radiological event,” the inspector general said.
The inspector general has outlined several recommendations to correct the lab’s failures, saying changes need to be made before the cleanup of radiological waste continues.
The lab said in a statement, “the OIG report is consistent with many of the waste processing issues already identified by the Energy Department and the lab. We will actively address the OIG’s recommendations in our continuing efforts to learn from these events and improve our operational practices.
“As a precautionary measure, all nitrate salt waste at Los Alamos is stored safely and securely in steel and glass structures equipped with high efficiency particulate air filtration and fire suppression systems. The waste is visually inspected and monitored for temperature. We are committed to working cooperatively with the State of New Mexico, and will not resume the processing of legacy waste until we are certain it is safe to do so.”
 Four lab workers have already been reassigned as a result of the incident, and the DOE has pulled nuclear waste cleanup operations from the contractor that runs the lab.
Cleaning up the waste repository and resuming full operations could take as long as three years. The cost has been estimated at more than $500 million, including the installation of a ventilation system and exhaust shaft.
While it’s unclear what caused the barrel to breach, investigators suspect a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with a lead glove and organic cat litter to absorb moisture. A final report on the cause is expected by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the lab is trying to determine what to do with drums of waste that contain similar ingredients. More than 500 are being stored temporarily at the waste repository, 86 are at the lab and another 119 are at a facility in West Texas.
The waste stored at Los Alamos is secure in steel and glass structures and is regularly monitored, according to the lab.
The inspector general found that the lab has spent several million dollars for temporary storage of the drums, chemical analysis and other costs related to the investigation. Those costs are expected to increase as the lab works to meet the recommendations.
According to the report, NNSA management concurred with the report’s findings and recommendations and stated that the results of our investigation are generally consistent with findings from internal investigations.
Also in the report, LANL could face enforcement actions taken by NMED for not completing major environmental cleanup operations and for noncompliance with its Hazardous Waste Facility Permit. In March 2005, LANL, the Department and NMED signed a consent order where LANL agreed to a schedule for the completion of cleanup at various locations on the LANL site by 2015.
The completion of the 3706 TRU waste campaign was vital to renegotiate cleanup deadlines. Although LANL had removed 3,328 cubic meters (90 percent) of TRU waste, LANL lost its primary tool to renegotiate the 2015 cleanup deadline for the bulk of the legacy waste with NMED.
At this time, the enforcement actions that will be taken by NMED are unknown and have yet to be determined. The order provides penalties for noncompliance with the cleanup milestones of up to $3,000 per day for each day of noncompliance.
Associated Press and John Severance contributed to this report.