LANL still looking for answers

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Lab > Wallace and Kendall update Regional Coalition on WIPP situation

By Arin McKenna

Last Friday, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities received updates on the Feb, 14 radiological release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. LANL WIPP Recovery Leader and Principal Associate Director For Global Security Terry Wallace and Jeff Kendall, general counsel for the New Mexico Environment Department, provided the updates.
The event occurred just two weeks after a drum of radioactive waste processed at Los Alamos National Laboratory was placed at WIPP. The breached drum was part of a shipment from the 3,706 campaign to remove 3,706 cubic meters of above ground transuranic waste from lab property.
The campaign was 93 percent complete when the incident occurred and WIPP shipments were halted.
Wallace reported that 300 LANL scientists with a range of expertise have performed roughly 3,000 experiments to determine the cause of the breach.
That work has revealed some answers, but not definitive ones. Experts have determined that the breach in the drum was caused by a series of step-wise exothermic reactions.
“What we know now is this heterogeneous waste has the potential for numerous reactions,” Wallace said. “When a reaction occurs, you produce heat. And that heat allows other reactions to occur if you produce enough heat. Any one of them would not have caused this, but in aggregate, we can reach a condition in which you have some breach.
“And that’s the focus of where we are today. We believe we understand that, and I believe we understand to a high degree, but there’s still a little uncertainty in how you begin to initiate this.”
The set of conditions were nearly unique to 68660, the drum that was breached, and was initiated by nitric acid. Metals that can interact with the nitric acid may also be partially at fault.
“With a nitrate waste stream, we always mix it with a desiccant, something that makes sure no liquids are there. In this case, it was an organic desiccant, the so-called kitty litter,” Wallace said. “That’s still a natural, organic material that can react with certain kinds of acids, in particular, nitric acids.”
The process calls for the bags of nitric acid to be opened and neutralized. But according to Wallace, records about this stage of the process were handwritten, and LANL cannot say with certainty whether some of the drums were fully neutralized.
A total of 16 drums with that combination of elements have been identified, including the breached drum. While a plan for permanently containing the suspect drums is being developed, they are being closely monitored for temperature increases, with emergency plans in place to respond should that occur. Headspace gases released from vents in the barrels is also being monitored.
“I personally review the headspace gases every day from all the measurements that come in here. So far we haven’t seen anything,” Wallace said. “That still doesn’t mean that we lose vigilance at all. We must overly monitor these systems to make sure we don’t have something happen.”
LANL is also reviewing what missteps led to the breach.
“This waste part of the laboratory is a large part of the laboratory. It also is managed with a large number of subcontractors,” Wallace said.
“We’re looking at, was there an appropriate set of roles and responsibilities? Did the procedures work there? Have we complied with all orders, regulations, policies, the consent order?
“Did our practices match the procedures, and are we really managing this as one laboratory? And the obvious answer to the last one is no, so we’re working through those issues to understand how that could have happened.”
LANL’s priorities are to determining what happened, ensure the safety of the public and the environment and reopen WIPP.
WIPP must be recertified in order to reopen. It must also be fitted with a new ventilation system; something that Wallace said was due to happen in any case.
City of Española Mayor Alice Lucero, who chairs the Regional Coalition, asked about a timeline for reopening WIPP, citing the economic hardship surrounding its closure.
According to Wallace, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz anticipates an 18 month timeframe for reopening the facility. Wallace noted that some groundwork must be laid before that process begins, but he believes that is a reasonable estimate.
Los Alamos County Councilor Francis Berting asked about a permanent solution for the drums in question.
“That’s a DOE decision,” Wallace said. “Most of the high risk drums are in Panel 6. Panel 6, in our estimation, should be closed. And it’s designed to do exactly that. I believe that it’s everybody’s long-term decision to do that.
“As far as the rest, at some point all the nitrate stream should be remediated, treated so that you don’t have a situation in which you have a reaction in the future, and we are making recommendations and plans for how to do that.”
According to Kendall, six of NMED’s 16 bureaus are actively involved in the process: Hazardous Waste and the DOE Oversight Bureau, as well as the Air Quality, Groundwater, Radiation Control and Environmental Health bureaus.
The department has issued four administrative orders to date, three to WIPP and one to LANL.
The first, issued Feb. 27, directed that drums still above ground at WIPP should be kept in place rather than shipped back to their generating sites.
The second administrative order dealt with underground monitoring requirements. The department is requiring daily submissions and daily technical calls with Hazardous Waste Bureau staff. Reports are posted on the NMED website.
Once the drum breach was confirmed, the department issued directives related to the isolation of the suspect drums.
The fourth directive required DOE to act as expeditiously as possible. At the time it was issued, the accident investigation board had essentially closed off WIPP’s underground storage.
“Now, since this has been issued, the accident investigation board has released all of the underground with the exception of panel 7, room 7,” Kendall said. “And this new isolation plan, which deals essentially with the panel closure of panel 6 (where the suspect drums are), has been submitted to the NMED and contingently approved by NMED.”
The isolation plan will lead to a recovery plan created by DOE and WIPP. The first phase of that plan calls for a steel bulkhead to be implemented for panel 6 as quickly as possible.
Kendall reported that since the incident, LANL has disclosed two explicit permit violations, one for treating waste in a way not allowed by the lab's permit and the other for failing to reevaluate and update its “acceptable knowledge documents.”
As new information comes to light, NMED expects to issue additional administrative orders. The department must also approve each phases forward, as well as the facility’s recertification.
“Secretary Flynn and myself wanted to assure the Regional Coalition that we’re doing everything we can to aggressively regulate what occurred at Los Alamos, what occurred in WIPP underground, the interplay between the two and determining what’s the best path forward,” Kendall said.
NMED is striving to make everything related to the incident and remediation as open as possible. All documentation dating back to the original incident is posted at nmenv.state.nm.us/NMED/Issues/WIPP2014Docs.html and is updated nearly daily.
Kendall also reported that NMED requested and received an additional $225,000 from the Department of Energy to pay for the added costs for laboratory analysis.

Wallace also reassured coalition members that reopening the facility is a priority.
“It’s unusual for both house of Congress to come together on any issue,” Wallace said. “But in the case of WIPP, they’ve both approved an increase in funding to get WIPP back in operation. And I think it was nearly unanimous in both chambers. So I think there is a considerable national focus that this is important.”