Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2014
By Arianne Peterson
Since Nukewatch’s Fall Quarterly update on the February barrel explosion that caused a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by Santa Fe’s New Mexican newspaper have revealed more about the gross negligence that led to the leak, exposing at least 20 workers—and the public—to radiation released from the underground repository.
“Waste Drum 68660”, the barrel that ruptured on Feb. 14 and caused the airborne radiation release, was packed with radioactive waste on Dec. 4, 2013, as part of clean-up efforts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and shipped to WIPP for permanent disposal. As Nukewatch reported in the Summer Quarterly, the barrel was one of many that had been packed with a wheat-based, organic “kitty litter” rather than the clay-based litter that had formerly been used to absorb liquid and neutralize waste in the barrels. Organic material is commonly known among industry chemists to react with the nitrate salts in the waste. Additionally, a WIPP briefing paper obtained by the New Mexican reveals that Drum 68660 contained waste from a batch with an unusually acidic pH of zero. Rather than following the lab’s guidelines and taking time to determine the proper treatment of such acidic waste, the lab’s contractors took shortcuts and added the wrong neutralizer to the barrel. An internal LANL memo from May 21 revealed that the drum’s main ingredients, including the organic litter and the neutralizer, matched the makeup of patented plastic explosives.
If the lab had labeled Drum 68660 with its true ingredients, it would not have met federal transportation standards to make the 330-mile trip on public roads to WIPP, nor would it have met the repository’s own acceptance criteria. But the documents sent with the drum were deeply flawed, failing to mention anything about the extraordinarily high acidity level or the neutralizer, and mischaracterizing the volatile organic litter, presenting it as the regular, clay-based version. According to the FOIA emails, LANL did not let WIPP officials know about the volatile ingredients described in the May 21 memo until May 27, when someone from LANL leaked the memo to them—presumably out of concern that WIPP was scheduled to send staff underground on May 28 to sample the area where the barrel ruptured.
“I am appalled that LANL didn’t provide us this information!” wrote Dana Bryson, Deputy Manager of the Department of Energy’s field office in Carlsbad, in an email to a WIPP manager sent after she learned of the memo. As a result of the memo leak, the May 28 sampling plan was postponed until May 30—and the LANL-based employee who shared it with WIPP was reprimanded.
When Drum 68660 was packed in December 2013, LANL was under a deadline imposed by New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, to remove radioactive waste—including gloves, machinery, and equipment from Cold War-era weapons production—from an area called “The Hill” that had been threatened by a fire in 2011. Los Alamos National Security LLC, the consortium of private companies that runs LANL, was rushing to package and ship the waste before June 30, 2014, in an effort to avoid another fire season and to help secure an extension of its $2.2 billion Energy Department contract. (Since the operation of LANL was privatized in 2007, annual compensation for its top executive has tripled to over $1.5 million.) Ironically, of course, the shortcuts the lab took in packaging the waste probably caused the failure and shutdown of the country’s only high-level radioactive waste repository, making it impossible for them to meet the deadline.
Neither LANL nor its waste packaging subcontractor, EnergySolutions, has publicly acknowledged the reason for the change from regular clay-based material to the volatile organic kitty litter used in packing Drum 68660. Internal emails obtained by the New Mexican, however, reveal an explanation that may be shockingly simple: a “typographical error.” A policy manual revision approved by LANL that took effect on August 1, 2012, specifically required waste packagers to “ensure an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” (emphasis added) for drums containing nitrate salts, which react with organic materials. In an email to a colleague, Mark Pearcy, who evaluates waste that is to be stored at WIPP, implied that the policy manual revision accidentally included the word “organic” instead of the intended “inorganic.”
“General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” Pearcy wrote. Oddly, the policy change was made just after a visit made by Governor Martinez to commend LANL for staying on track to meet its waste shipment deadline. In any case, the new policy took effect almost immediately, with waste packagers using wheat-based litter as early as September 2012—meaning that the number of incorrectly labeled drums containing the potentially explosive mixture number up to 5,565.
At the same time LANL was speeding up its packaging process, in 2012 and 2013, it was rebuffing attempts made by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to carry out regular inspections and audits to ensure the facility was complying with its state permits. NMED officials claim they were told to stay out of the waste handling facility because they did not have the appropriate training to be around the radioactive waste. On Dec. 6, following a nine-month investigation, NMED announced it had found 13 permit violations at WIPP and 24 at LANL. The state imposed civil penalties in the amounts of $17.6 million and $36.6 million, respectively, on the facilities.
According to the recovery plan released by the Energy Department in September, officials were sending workers into the underground WIPP facility four times a week with plans to resume daily entries. Experts have raised concerns that not only are other mislabeled barrels with dangerous ingredient combinations still remaining in the site, but temperatures in the storage area following the rupture of Drum 68660, which reportedly soared to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, may have made their contents even more volatile. Though WIPP operators assure workers the facility is safe for them to enter, they have not responded to requests from the workers’ union to provide safety reports that include the detailed risk and radiation measurement numbers.
Official estimates on the cost of the clean-up at WIPP, which experts have called conservative, are around $500 million. With 5,564 more potentially explosive radioactive waste barrels spread throughout nuclear facilities in the Southwest, no one knows what the negligence of the Energy Department and its contractors will ultimately cost us.
—Albuquerque Journal, Nov. 13 & Dec. 6; New Mexican (Santa Fe), Nov. 15 & 29, 2014
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