DOE responds to new WIPP leak theory

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Differing reports > Former LANL physicist stands by theory that exploding gasses caused leak

By Tris DeRoma

The Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office of the Department of Energy responded this week to a former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist’s alternate theory about what caused a 2014 radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.
The DOE is standing by its initial analysis of what happened to cause the rupture of a barrel of transuranic waste Feb. 14, 2014.
“The overarching conclusion of the technical assessment team was that specific chemical contents inside one particular drum, in combination with physical configuration of the materials led to a chemical reaction that breached the drum,” said Steve Horak, a communications specialist with the DOE Environmental Management Field Office in Los Alamos.  “A separate DOE board of experts and an independent expert board confirmed these results and we see no reason to question them now.”
The DOE concluded that the barrel was packed with an organic kitty litter, that when combined with the contents inside the barrel, set off a reaction that eventually blew the lid of the barrel and spread the waste throughout the room, an underground, salt-lined chamber. The chamber has since been closed off and shut down along with the rest of the plant.
An official report on the incident from the DOE concluded the barrel at WIPP leaked and exploded because it was packed with the wrong type of material.
WIPP was shuttered following the incident and remains closed.
The drum, known as Drum 68660, was shipped from LANL. It was stored in Panel 7, Room 7 at WIPP.
Former LANL physicist Charles Bowman released a report and gave a lecture at a LANL workshop in Santa Fe last week, saying the chemical reaction had nothing to do with the type of kitty litter used in the drum.
“The gist of our Santa Fe talk is that the DOE missed a more likely reason for the barrel explosion than the spontaneous combustion mechanism described in its 300-page final report,” Bowman said. “We described publicly for the first time, measurements performed at the TUNL (Triangle Universities National Laboratories) lab at Duke University that showed that the alpha particles from decay of plutonium and americium slowed down in the barrel waste material and generated sufficient gases to pressurize the barrel at WIPP room temperature to its bursting point.”  
He also said the reaction taking place inside the barrel was not one that produced heat inside the barrel. Rather, the actual explosion took place outside the barrel.
“Because both hydrogen and carbon monoxide burn in oxygen, the gas mixture also was explosive,” Bowman said. “So when the top burst off of the barrel from over pressure, we believe that a spark from the violent scraping of metal against metal ignited the cold gas,” Bowman said.
In its report, the DOE’S Accident Investigation Board concluded that the explosion was heat-based, and the fire was started when other packing materials caught fire within and without the barrel due to the gases mixing and combusting.
“The visual evidence associated with the identified breach was consistent with an exothermic reaction within drum 68660. This reaction resulted in internal heating of drum that led to internal pressure buildup of combustible gases within the drum which exceeded the drum venting capacity,” according to the board report. “The drum lid extruded beyond the lid retention ring, deflected the lid, and resulted in rapid release of the materials from the drum. The combustible gases and solids ignited which then spread to other combustible materials within the waste array, i.e., fiberboard and polyethylene slip sheets, reinforcement plates, stretch wrap, cardboard stiffeners and polypropylene super sack fabric.”
Bowman urged the DOE to reexamine its findings to fix what he said is a fundamental flaw in the packaging and disposal of radioactive waste.
“As matters now stand, explosive gas generation in WIPP will continue for millennia,” Bowman said. “This is a serious problem for the self-sealing, much advertised advantage of low-level waste storage in a salt deposit that will hermetically seal the explosive gas causing growing gas pressure with no means for release until it reaches the 2000-psi pressure of the overburden. However the most immediate danger at WIPP was created by the walling off of the room D7R7 where the exploding barrel was located and where 10,000 other gas-generating barrels are now isolated from WIPP’s improved ventilation system.”
The DOE Accident Investigation Board said, on the other hand, that the flaw was actually in LANL not following proper packing procedures.
“Failure of Los Alamos National Security, LLC (The company that manages LANL) to implement effective processes for procedure development, review, and change control. Execution of the Waste Characterization, Reduction, and Repackaging Facility... resulted in a combination of incompatible materials and the generation of an ignitable, noncompliant waste,” was just one of 12 flaws the AIB saw in LANL’s packing procedures.
Bowman hoped his talk at the Aug. 5 workshop would have resulted in either the New Mexico Environment Department or the DOE getting in touch with him. He said that so far, they have not.
“We expected that the NMED would have been in close contact with the DOE on this matter, but we have never received any response from either organization,” he said.
NMED did not respond to a request for comment about Bowman’s report.
For more information about the AIB’s report, visit energy.gov.