Watchdogs weigh in on WIPP mess

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Watchdog groups put in their two cents with last week’s news that it could be three years to fully reopen the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

On May 2, the Department of Energy announced that some nuclear waste shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to Waste Control Specialists (WCS) were suspended for an undetermined amount of time. 

The reason for the stoppage was that one or more LANL waste containers may have exploded underground and caused the Feb. 14 radiation release at WIPP.

A press release from the Concerned Citizens for Buclear Safety states that neither DOE nor LANL publicly identified the specific group of containers, called a waste stream, that are included in the shipment suspension.  Nor have they publicly stated how many of the suspect containers are at WIPP and WCS and how many remain at LANL.

“ The suspended waste stream is LA-MIN02-V.001, which is the source of 54 of the 268 contact-handled waste containers in room 7, panel 7, at WIPP, where the radiation release may have originated.  Another 116 containers from that waste stream are now at WCS.  The waste stream was created by plutonium operations at LANL that are continuing at Technical Area 55,” the release said.

 The containers hold a portion of the 3,706 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste that is the subject of the framework agreement between the New Mexico Environment Department and LANL.  The agreement states that it is non-binding, but LANL committed to removing all of that waste from Area G by June 30th, 2014. 

 When WIPP was closed in early February, about 100 shipments remained at LANL to meet the June 30 date.  Since those shipments could not go to WIPP, DOE agreed to pay the West Texas plant $8.8 million to receive and store those wastes for up to one year. 

CCNS states that since October 2011,the Environment Department has issued more than 95 extensions of time for LANL to submit groundwater protection and cleanup investigation reports required by the Consent Order

According to CCNS, the framework agreement does not give the Environment Department any power to impose fines and penalties to LANL for missing the June 30 deadline, while NMED does have that power under the Consent Order. 

 Joni Arends, of CCNS, said,  “Both LANL and the Environment Department put all of their eggs in one basket by focusing on getting the waste off the Hill to WIPP instead of doing all of the work required under the Consent Order.  Now, we still have waste at LANL – with more being created – but many of the important Consent Order activities have not been done.”

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group also weighed in.

“On the one hand, to err is human,” Mello said. “Who has not done something dumb?  On the other hand, assuming this report is correct, this was a very significant substitution which any high school level chemistry student should have flagged.  And surely it was done with the knowledge of various managers, or should have been.  The fault lies with management, in this case and really always, as Dr. Deming said. 

“Every accident report at LANL over the past 20 years points to the same management problems.  LANL needs to come back from Mars, in so many ways, and get grounded in earthly realities.”