In a letter addressed to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), lab officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have admitted to mishandling toxic waste shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, the nation’s only permanent repository for plutonium-contaminated waste from government nuclear facilities.
The letter, released by state regulators last Thursday, does not confirm whether the violations or LANL’s use of an organic absorption material in waste containers is to blame for the underground radiation leak, which occurred Feb. 14, contaminating 22 workers with low levels of radiation.
LANL failed to follow proper protocols when switching from inorganic absorption material to an organic substitute, and the lab also failed to follow up on waste, which tests showed to be highly acidic, both in violation of its Hazardous Waste Facility Permit. Despite hundreds of experiments, investigators have been unable to confirm what actually caused the underground leak. In the meantime, the repository remains closed.
ABC News reports that Terry Wallace, LANL principal associate director for global security, told employees at a recent meeting that an in-house investigation is focused on 16 barrels of highly acidic, nitrate-salt-bearing waste, including the drum that leaked at WIPP. Ten barrels under investigation remain underground at WIPP, while five are in temporary storage at a private waste facility in Texas. According to an internal-LANL memo obtained by the AP, Wallace noted that a technical review “identified certain conditions that might potentially cause an exothermic reaction inside a drum. Among them are neutralized liquids, a low pH and the presence of metals.”
“The low pH findings should have prompted a pause in work to ensure appropriate technical and regulatory reviews of next steps,” Wallace said.
LANL is now focused on correcting the processes to prevent any recurrence. “We need to get this right and set best practices for the entire Complex,” Wallace said.
NMED is reviewing the “initial violations and plans to take appropriate actions once it concludes its independent review of the incidents at WIPP and LANL,” including an underground truck fire at WIPP six days before the radiation leak.
Source: Homeland Security News Wire (HSNW)