Drum beat: Missing tag, mistaken assumptions may have caused problem container to go awry

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By Roger Snodgrass

Investigators are beginning to unravel the story behind the 55-gallon barrel that recently had to be plucked from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and returned to Los Alamos National Laboratory for corrections.

The New Mexico Environment Department announced at the time that the disposal had been “improper” and related to “prohibitions on liquids.”

LANL officials acknowledged that a mistake was made and a drum containing radioactive waste was shipped to the Department of Energy’s WIPP site near Carlsbad, N.M., that should not have been sent.

LANL is awaiting ongoing investigations before commenting further, said LANL spokesperson Kevin Roark shortly after the problem was made public.

Several investigations are now in process. A preliminary report was released June 13 by David Moody, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office in charge of WIPP.

The report discusses why the drum got all the way into the underground repository before it was discovered and how the error was uncovered.

The drum was originally X-rayed in April 2004, when no deficiencies were found, according to background summary in the report. A year later, it was pulled for visual inspection, under provisions of the permit then under effect, which called for an additional examination of a certain percentage of the drums.

At that time, a liquid substance, identified as water, was found in the drum, which was duly tagged and set aside to be remediated. It was listed as “NCR,” or “non-conforming” in a report.

Two years later, in April 2008, two employees of the Central Characterization Project (CCP) at LANL mistakenly assumed that the drum had been remediated and approved it for shipment.

“CCP is a certified program at Los Alamos that is owned by the contractor that reports to the Carlsbad Field Office,” said Casey Gadbury, director of the National TRU program.

Los Alamos personnel are involved in handling, moving, remediating and correcting issues with the drums that hold the transuranic waste, and then turn them over to the contractor, he said.

TRU waste, or transuranic waste, is the principal class of defense-related radioactive materials generated by the nuclear weapons program that is stored at WIPP.

Moody’s report focused on “why both individuals missed indentifying this NCR as an unresolved problem.”

One reason was that nearly all the TRU waste containers at LANL either have been remediated or will require remediation.

“The condition is more severe at LANL than any other location where CCP is deployed,” Moody wrote.

The personnel should also have seen a tag on the barrel indicating that it had not yet been remediated, but the people involved in the handling have said there were no tags attached.

The report said the tags are attached by plastic and do sometimes become separated from the container. One of the corrective actions already in process is to replace the plastic ties with wire ties.

The drum was one of four drums contained in a Standard Waste Box, known as an overpack that was sent to WIPP May 21 and “emplaced” May 28, according to DOE’s records. The “discrepant condition” was discovered June 5 during a review process.

Notifications were made June 6, the same day all shipments to WIPP were suspended.

The overpack was retrieved from nine rows back in what was supposed to be its final resting place and returned to Los Alamos June 13, according to Gadbury. Since then, WIPP has reopened to shipments again, after a brief period of closure, but it is still not accepting material from LANL.

The errant drum that arrived at WIPP May 20 was only the second drum in the history of WIPP that had to be retrieved. A previous drum, also with a liquid violation and also over-packed, came from Idaho National Laboratory in June 2007. It was retrieved from 36 rows back, Gadbury said.

The New Mexico Environment Department has announced an investigation, as has the federal regulator, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“EPA is concerned that this event may be indicative of system-wide issues – the Central Characterization Program (CCP) in particular,” wrote Juan Reyes, director of the agency’s office of air and radiation.

EPA scheduled an evaluation at LANL for Thursday, but that meeting was postponed.