By Patrick Malone | The Sante Fe New Mexican
The U.S. Department of Energy notified state regulators Friday that it won’t meet a June 30 deadline to remove nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The department cited delays caused by a Feb. 14 radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, where waste from the lab is shipped for underground storage.
Some 387 cubic feet of clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil and radioactive materials generated during nuclear research and weapons development is still stored on-site at Los Alamos, according to the federal agency. After the Las Conchas Fire in 2011 burned within a few miles of the storage area, the Energy Department said, the waste was repacked in noncombustible containers, including metal drums and waste boxes held in domed structures with fire suppression systems.
“As we work to assess the conditions of the transuranic waste program at the lab, we have decided to halt further shipments until we can reassure the public that it is safe to do so,” David Klaus, the Energy Department’s deputy undersecretary for management and performance, said in a written statement. “This was a tough decision to make and the department remains committed to solving this issue and resuming shipments.”
Officials at the New Mexico Environment Department, which has regulatory oversight authority as the issuer of permits to LANL and WIPP, expressed disappointment but not surprise about the Energy Department’s announcement.
“The current circumstances at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant dictate that the highest priority of NMED continues to be ongoing protection of public safety and the environment by ensuring all precautions are being taken by the U.S. Department of Energy during the investigation into the Feb. 14 radiological release,” state Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester said.
He said the state will review potential options regarding the consent order that imposed a June 30 deadline for removal of the waste from Los Alamos.
The head of a watchdog group that monitors activities at the lab was not terribly concerned about the missed deadline. “I don’t think we should shed any tears about that, because it was an arbitrary deadline,” said Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group.
Shipments from LANL to WIPP of transuranic waste — radiation-contaminated remnants from decades of nuclear weapons research — were suspended following detection of the radiation leak at WIPP, the nation’s primary below-ground nuclear waste storage facility.
Subsequently, waste from the lab was shipped to a Waste Control Specialist site in Andrews, Texas, pending resumption of WIPP operations. Those shipments, too, stopped when federal investigators zeroed in on a drum of waste from LANL as a possible cause of the radiation leak at WIPP.
Investigators are reviewing whether a switch last year from clay-based kitty litter to an organic type of absorbent packing material could have triggered the chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak.
“The laboratory fully supports the Department of Energy’s efforts towards safely reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” LANL spokesman Matt Nerzig said. “We are determined to meet our obligations to the state of New Mexico and must ascertain what caused the release at WIPP to prevent any recurrence. In order to enhance investigations underway here at Los Alamos, we have joined the experts from a group of five national laboratories to determine the cause of the radiological release.”
The fact that the Las Conchas Fire burned within 3.5 miles of the lab’s waste disposal area spurred the state to impose the June 30 deadline for removal of the waste.
Since then, about 90 percent of the campaign to rid LANL of 3,327.5 cubic feet of transuranic waste by next month’s deadline was completed, and the project was on track to be finished on time before the radiation leak at WIPP interrupted it, according to the Department of Energy.
On Friday, WIPP officials satisfied a separate state-imposed deadline by submitting a plan for closing portions of the facility where contamination from the radiation leak is likely to be present. The extent of that contamination continues to be assessed.
In the plan submitted to the state Environment Department, WIPP reported that there could be a delay in the closing of Panel 7, Room 7, the location of the compromised drum of waste suspected of causing a chemical reaction that led to the radiation leak.
A team from the Energy Department’s Accident Investigation Board is expected to keep Panel 7, Room 7, off-limits until June 20, when WIPP officials hope to have identified any contaminated equipment in order to move it into that area for storage.
Another area, Panel 6, where two drums from the same waste stream suspected in the leak are housed, is expected to be closed within 180 days by installing a fortified barrier and bulkheads, according to WIPP’s plan.
State Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said the plan submitted for WIPP will be reviewed and evaluated with the expectation that the cause of the radiation release will be confirmed, and that waste containers already stored at WIPP will be secured as quickly as possible.