LANL report admits errors in packing waste

July 3, 2014

By Staci Matlock
Santa Fe The New Mexican

Los Alamos National Laboratory has admitted mistakes were made in processing waste containers, including one that ruptured in the nuclear waste storage facility near Carlsbad, causing a radiation leak that shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

LANL filed a report Thursday with the state Environment Department that cited noncompliance issues — but stopped short of saying the errors caused the leak.

The lab’s manager, Los Alamos National Security LLC, and the Department of Energy investigated the waste processing after a container from LANL burst open Feb. 14 in Panel 7 of the deep salt caverns at WIPP. The lab said it had “"insufficient evidence" that mistakes in handling nitrate salt-bearing waste had caused the container to leak.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, however, said the lab and Department of Energy’s assertion that there was insufficient evidence to link mistakes to the leak was "false."

"They very much do relate to the radioactive release at WIPP," Mello said of the errors listed in the report. "They did pose a threat to human health and the environment, and they still do."

State Environment Department officials said in a statement that they are reviewing these initial violations and plan “to take appropriate actions" following an independent review of the incidents at WIPP and LANL.

Lab officials said in a statement, "As part of our ongoing internal investigation, we have identified shortcomings in the processing procedures that led to actions not covered by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Hazardous Waste Facility Permit. The focus is now on correcting these processes, in addition to ongoing recovery work."

Federal and state investigators narrowed down the leak at WIPP to several drums from LANL. Chemists have said a combination of nitrate salts in the waste, a pH neutralizer and a wheat-based kitty litter used as an absorbent material in the drum could have caused a chemical reaction that cracked open the lid of the container.

Investigators still haven’t confirmed that a bad chemical mix is what caused the leak.

The eight-page report filed by the lab and federal officials details how the waste was handled and repackaged at the lab. The report concludes that adding the pH neutralizer and the organic kitty litter violated the lab’s hazardous waste permit from the state.

The lab approved the use of the neutralizers and a switch from inorganic clay absorbents to the wheat-based kitty litter in 2013, according to documents.

The lab and the Energy Department also found the waste stream should have been re-evaluated when technicians realized there was corrosive liquid in the drums that could react with other chemicals.

The lab has stopped processing the nitrate salt-bearing drums while officials continue to investigate. A total of 86 of the drums are stored in domes at the lab’s Area G waste facility. Of those, 57 have been treated with the neutralizer and the organic kitty litter, giving them the same potential for a chemical reaction. The other 29 containers haven’t been processed yet. The lab has created a remediation team to decide how to proceed with handling the waste.

Lab officials told the state Environment Department on June 3 that they were investigating possible irregularities in how radioactive waste containers with nitrate salts were processed at the lab’s facility.

The company contracted to repackage the waste, Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions, has had three rounds of layoffs, totaling 83 people, since March 30. Company officials said the first round was due to completion of the waste repackaging project, and the firm was cutting back on personnel at the lab. The company said subsequent layoffs, the latest of which occurred Monday, were because Los Alamos National Security had to shift $20 million of the contract funds to cover costs of storing containers at a Texas facility and to help with the leak investigation at WIPP.

On the Web

• Read the LANL report at

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.