UPDATE: LANL Approximates WIPP Explosion

Drum 68660 at Panel 7 Room 7, Row 16, Column 4 in the WIPP underground photographed after the radiological release. Courtesy/DOE

UPDATE:

In response to a query by the Los Alamos Daily Post, Los Alamos National Laboratory provided the following clarification of the experiments related to the breached LANL container at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, noting that the experiment on an unvented drum at elevated temperatures was expected to cause a reaction. Yet to be determined is whether a drum that is vented, like the one that came open at WIPP, and at a significantly lower temperature, as that one was presumed to be, might also result in a reaction.

LANL statement on WIPP container experiment:

At the request of the Accident Investigation Board, and in the interests of worker safety moving forward, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists initiated a series of full-scale drum tests designed to better replicate the physical and chemical processes that led to the drum breach and radiological release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
 
This experiment was designed to ensure that a reaction would occur. An unvented drum (the WIPP drum was vented) was subjected to external temperatures significantly higher than that in the WIPP repository. In this case, reaction gases built up in the drum, increasing the internal pressure and resulting in ejection of the lid. The results were consistent with the analysis in the AIB and TAT reports. 
 
A more detailed understanding the early warning signs of and conditions contributing to a potential thermal runaway reaction are important as LANL continues to evaluate its approach to possible treatment and repackaging of the nitrate waste salt drums.
 
By ROGER SNODGRASS
Los Alamos Daily Post

A team of Los Alamos chemists and energetic materials specialists have, for the first time simulated an explosion under conditions close to those at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Feb. 14, 2014.

The Defense Nuclear Facility Board noted in a Weekly Site Report for the week ending May 15 from Los Alamos National Laboratory that LANL scientists obtained the first result associated with a full scale drum experiment.

“Specifically,” according to the notice, “the contents of the sealed 55-gallon drum in a 60-degree C. environment initiated a thermal runaway reaction, pressurized the drum, and forcefully ejected the drum lid.” The temperature on this drum was elevated and the container was unvented and more likely to explode in this condition. Other tests were to be performed on three more drums – two at ambient temperature and one vented

A series of experiments began about two weeks earlier at the request of the Department of Energy Accident Investigation Board and were still being monitored at the time of the report. The purpose was to recreate the circumstances associated with Drum 68660, the container of transuranic waste from LANL that was identified as the source of the airborne radioactive leak that led ultimately to the still continuing closure of WIPP, the underground nuclear waste storage facility located near Carlsbad in Southern New Mexico.

These full scale experiments, according to the DNFSB report, were conducted in four standard 55-gallon waste drums with contents that resembled as nearly as possible those of Drum 68660, except for the absence of nuclear materials. According to the DNFSB site report for April 17, 2015, another set of experiments are planned for developing a safety basis for future handling of the waste materials. The next tests would be conducted according to the more rigorous quality assurance standards required for nuclear facility operations.

Editor’s note: A response from LANL is pending. Check back for updates.

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