Radiation Leak Linked to Los Alamos; Do We Really Want Biological Agents There?

Alex Jacobs

The cause of the radiation leak at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is still unresolved, but we know that it started with Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) and ended at the WIPP, shutting that facility down for a few more years and costing millions of dollars.

Yet even as LANL comes under criticism for its current issues, some government agencies are pushing to increase its production; another plan, coming from LANL itself, would involve the facility diversifying into handling hazardous biological agents. This isn't sitting well with a lof of the New Mexicans who are following the radiation-leak saga.

In late August LANL notified state environment officials at New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that 86 drums at their facility were being re-evaluated and re-labelled as “ignitable” or “corrosive”. Three hundred more drums already stored at WIPP will be re-labelled as they come from the same waste stream and contain similar chemicals.

Now just this past week, a second drum with a lead-covered handling glove inside, similar to the one that caused the leak, was identified at WIPP; it’s in an unsealed area in Panel 6. The material in the two drums came from work at LANL to purify weapons-grade plutonium circa 1985, when it was packed into a “parent drum.” That parent drum was “remediated” and the waste split into 2 drums at LANL on December 4, 2013. The drum that leaked was placed in WIPP in Panel 7 on Jan. 31, 2014 and 14 days later the drum released trace amounts of americium and plutonium.

Terry Wallace, LANL officer in charge of WIPP recovery and associate director of global security, presented all this information to state legislators in Carlsbad on September 16.  Wallace said the first drum would have had to reach temperatures of 572-662 degrees Fahrenheit to cause the reaction that caused the leak on February 14. They have conducted tests trying to imitate the reaction, but as Wallace said, “We can explain energetic reactions but not initiation.” His comment that got the most attention was, “We cannot guarantee that second drum won’t go (have a chemical reaction), nor can I guarantee that all conditions are likely to make it go.”

The DOE identified 678 waste drums from LANL that matched the signature of the drum that caused the radiation leak. Of the total, 113 drums are currently being held at the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews County, Texas; 55 are in Panel 7, Room 7 at WIPP, 453 are in Room 6 at WIPP; and 57 still require additional processing at LANL. According to Wallace’s report, there are a total of 16 drums at LANL and Andrews TX that contain “similar constituents to the breached drum”, and are being monitored by DOE. But only the 2 drums in question contained a lead glove, and one of these two drums is the one that leaked. Wallace’s report says a reaction in a mix of the kitty litter with nitrates occurs at 572 degrees; a combination for acids, salts, metals and organics reacts at the boiling point, 212 degrees. Lead reacts with nitric acid at lower temperatures and its possible a series of these such reactions could’ve brought the temperatures up to causing a reaction with the “organic absorbent”.

RELATED: Cause of WIPP Radiation Leak: Kitty Litter?

Wallace’s report states, “LANL did not consider the chemical reactions that unique combinations of radionuclides, acids, salts, liquids and organics might create,” and adds that the lab didn’t comply with its permit for treating and characterizing waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) is assembling a large device that will be taken underground to further analyze damage to the waste drums that are not in clear view in Panel 7, Room 7.

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn said on Sept 6, “The problem is that Department of Energy headquarters back in Washington, D.C., is looking at this situation through a political or (public relations) lens, so they’ve put a noose around the scientific personnel who can answer our questions and move this process along.” Flynn also said the DOE has thwarted attempts by the state NMED to gather information for its investigation. Flynn lauded LANL scientists who were in communication with him about possible causes, but DOE will not release documentation supporting the scientists. Flynn is questioning the whole “re-labelling” done by LANL and DOE, and says treating waste without a permit and labeling waste as less volatile than it actually is are violations.

The first theory of a switch from a clay-based to wheat-based kitty litter, plus neutralizers, causing the leak has been tested but similar results haven’t been created. LANL was warned that the new litter/neutralizer combo shouldn’t be mixed with certain chemicals and a non-scientist approved it when a scientist should’ve caught the mistake. Jim Conca, who worked at WIPP is now a blogger on environmental issues, theorized this and Wallace’s report confirms that LANL was lax on many issues. A glove covered in lead inside the drum became the next culprit as the lead could cause a reaction with certain chemicals; these tests have also been inconclusive.


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alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Estimates to re-open WIPP are at over $500 million, plus its $150 million annual operating costs... DOE has shaken up LANL re-assigning 4 top Lab officials, taken away LANS-Los Alamos National Security- consortium's $2 billion annual contract to give to DOE's Office of Environmental Management for "legacy environmental clean-up work"...critic Greg Mello says sub-contracting issues were part of these past problems...if standard protocols are followed for radiation clean-up, it could be another 5 years before WIPP is fully operational...