Letter To The Editor: New WIPP Accident Theory Implausible

Los Alamos

A new theory advanced by Charles Bowman that a hydrogen deflagration caused the 2014 WIPP accident is implausible. This theory was reported in the Aug. 11, 2016 print edition of the Los Alamos Daily Post. It contains errors and omissions that should be corrected.

I spent most of my 30+ years of corporate experience dealing with TRU waste. As the manager of the LANL plutonium analysis section, I had hands-on generation of portions of LANL’s TRU waste.  Under contract to Sandia National Labs, I led a LANL team to conduct many lab experiments on alpha radiolytic gas generation of TRU waste under conditions expected at WIPP.  Al Zerwekh, mentioned by Bowman, was a member of this team.  This was followed by my working in LANL’s TRU waste management operations developing strategies to work off LANL’s TRU waste inventory based on its characteristics. I am a LANL retiree – “Class of 2005.”

Hydrogen can be produced by alpha radiolysis of hydrogenous waste. However, in our experiments, the major gases produced from radiolysis of cellulosics were hydrogen and carbon dioxide
with lesser amounts of carbon monoxide. The Post article seems to suggest that TRU waste is all cellulosics and that 500,000 drums may require treatment. This is inaccurate. Large portions of the waste inventory consist of other matrices, including plastics, inorganic sludges or cemented wastes, metals, etc.

Radiolysis is such a slow process that in our experiments, we had to use much higher levels of plutonium contamination than permissible for WIPP so we could get enough gas in a few years to measure and analyze. Then, we would extrapolate back to WIPP levels. We performed our experiments not only with 239-plutonium, but also the more intensely radioactive isotope 238-plutonium.  Again, hands-on work.

Every TRU waste drum destined for WIPP is required to have a certified filter that allows gases to flow or diffuse out while retaining radionuclide particles. Hydrogen is a small molecule that diffuses out of the filter. In an unsealed WIPP panel, the slowly generated, small quantities of hydrogen would be rapidly so diluted they could never reach the concentration of the lower flammability limit (LFL), let alone the higher lower explosion limit (LEL). However, these filters likely couldn’t allow gases that were rapidly generated by a fast, exothermic chemical reaction to escape. They are not designed for that.

Our radiolysis and thermal degradation work was part of a larger Sandia project to determine whether gases generated by degradation of TRU waste could threaten the integrity of the WIPP mine.  Other scientists studied corrosion and bacterial gas generation. Data from all four mechanisms were modeled and published by Martin Molecke of Sandia. The conclusion was that the mine would not lose integrity, so treatment of hydrocarbon TRU waste was unnecessary. A literature search will verify that.

Finally, the sealing system of the WIPP panels was designed by Sandia to withstand powerful explosions. 

So, what caused the drum explosion in 2014? I won’t guess at the cause since I wasn’t part of the investigation team, nor had access to the data they did. However, based on hearsay, I speculate that flammable, volatile organic compounds may have contributed to the flame front after the explosion since ventilation was down after the truck fire a few weeks earlier. Speculation only – no data!