Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board Eyes Area G

Canisters with profiles similar to the one that erupted at WIPP are kept in LANL’s Dome 375 at Area G in a controlled environment under careful surveillance. Courtesy/DOE

Los Alamos Daily Post

The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board plans to perform a comprehensive review of emergency preparedness and response programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the next few weeks.

“We’ve been informed by the DNFSB that they’re planning on holding some hearings out here sometime in the March time frame associated with Area G,” said Doug Hintze, Environmental Management field office manager, speaking Wednesday to the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board.

Technical Area 54, which includes Area G and its facilities, is the main site at LANL for the disposal of low level waste and other contaminated materials, including TRU or transuranic waste, man-made materials that contain plutonium, americium or certain other radioactive elements.

On Jan. 7, DNFSB Chairman Joyce Connery advised Energy Secretary Moniz that the board would be following up on a number of concerns that have been raised related to weaknesses associated with identifying deficiencies in emergency preparations at LANL’s nuclear defense facilities and correcting them effectively.

One of her specific observations had to do with potential release hazards associated with the “inappropriately remediated nitrate salts,” the materials identified as having caused the underground explosion in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Valentine’s Day 2014.

Connery also pointed out emergency response plans that “have not been updated to reflect the current understanding of the release hazard associated with these materials.”Nitrate salts are one of the residual products from the extraction and recovery of plutonium from various operations in the nuclear complex. The canisters that remain at LANL containing the materials that were inappropriately treated are segregated under close surveillance in a temperature-controlled dome at Area G.

Safety board site representative have contributed additional information in a paper trail of observations that go back to at least the week of October 2, 2015, when they reported that Area G personnel were beginning an investigation “after they determined that material at risk values for certain types of nitrate salt wastes may be underreported by a factor of as much as 10.” The Area G personnel discovered that the “historical data from the Plutonium Facility relied on safeguard values that did not accurately reflect the content of americium 241.” They were then backtracking to see if there were other waste streams that might be affected by a higher americium content.

In a subsequent observation for the week ending Dec. 25, safety board site representatives reported that Area G activities had been curtailed, mainly because “LANL personnel are working to accelerate final ‘render-safe’ treatment of the inappropriately remediated nitrate salt wastes after EM and NNSA personnel raised questions on the adequacy of the controls for the continued safe storage of these materials.”

At a Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board Meeting on Wednesday this week, Doug Hintze, the manager of the LANL EM Environmental Field Office announced the DNFSB plans to hold hearings in the area sometime in March. “We don’t know what the topics are,” he said. “When we have further information, we’ll pass that on to you.”

After the meeting, LANL Associate Director for Environmental Program acknowledged the board’s plans to hold a hearing that would include, but not be limited to, the issue of nitrate salts. “We’ve been looking at that very diligently,” he said. “There’s a number of issues that we’ve been addressing in the safety basis category associated with the inventory of waste at Area G. Not only the nitrate salts, but that certainly is a major piece of it.”