Report: LANL lost track of 250 barrels of nuke waste

  Scott Wyland
swyland@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 12/10/19

The contractor that's been in charge of Los Alamos National Laboratory's operations for the past year lost track of 250 barrels of waste, while the company heading the legacy cleanup mislabeled and improperly stored waste containers and took months to remedy some infractions, according to the state's yearly report on hazardous waste permit violations.

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Report: LANL lost track of 250 barrels of nuke waste

Posted

The contractor that's been in charge of Los Alamos National Laboratory's operations for the past year lost track of 250 barrels of waste, while the company heading the legacy cleanup mislabeled and improperly stored waste containers and took months to remedy some infractions, according to the state's yearly report on hazardous waste permit violations.

Triad National Security LLC, a consortium of nonprofits that runs the lab's daily operations, had 19 violations of its permit from the New Mexico Environment Department. Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, also known as N3B, which is managing a 10-year cleanup of waste generated at the lab, was cited 29 times.

Triad's most notable violation was shipping 250 barrels of mostly mixed waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad without tracking them. Mixed waste contains low-level radioactive waste and other hazardous materials. Inspectors found records still listed the waste at the national lab.

Lab personnel didn't update the shipping data because they were waiting for WIPP to acknowledge it had received the waste, lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said in an emailed statement.

"There was no risk to public health or safety and the inventory is now correct," Nerzig said, adding that shipping updates now will be done when waste leaves the lab.

But a watchdog group said failing to track such a high volume of waste is an egregious error that falls in line with the lab's long history of serious missteps.

"The fact that LANL has mischaracterized, misplaced, mis-inventoried - or whatever - 250 barrels of waste is pretty astounding," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. "We see mistakes being made by a new contractor. So definitely, all of this is cause for concern."

Still, Triad has committed less than a tenth of the violations that its predecessor, Los Alamos National Security LLC, used to average in a given year.

A disastrous "kitty litter" incident happened under Los Alamos National Security, in which a waste barrel was packaged in error with a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts, causing the container to burst and leak radiation at the Southern New Mexico storage site. WIPP closed for almost three years, and the cleanup cost about $2 billion.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees the lab, declined to renew LANS' contract in 2015. Triad took over operations in November 2018. Among Triad's duties is to dispose of waste at the lab generated from 1999 to the present.

N3B won a $1.4 billion contract in December 2017 to clean up waste produced at the lab before 1999.

The company was cited for a slew of mislabeled waste containers during the year. Inspectors also found some waste barrels, which are stored under tent-like domes, coated with snow or rainwater.

N3B also failed to remedy within 24 hours the flaws that inspectors found in equipment or structures that could present an environmental or human-health hazard, the report said. Inspectors discovered N3B took as long as 18 months to fix cracks in concrete and asphalt surfaces.

The barrels covered in rain or snow were stored under fabric domes that have holes in them because of inclement weather, said Steven Horak, spokesman for the Energy Department's environmental management field office at Los Alamos.

The domes and the paved surfaces are being repaired, he added.

None of the flawed labels mentioned in the report misidentified waste contents but were also degraded by the weather and have been replaced, Horak said.

Mislabeled containers should be taken seriously because they can cause incidents if the contents aren't identified, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

In 2017, an unlabeled hazardous waste container ignited at the lab's plutonium facility during a cleanup, causing one worker to suffer second-degree burns.

Kovac said of all the violations he's read in the report, he's having the most difficulty understanding Triad losing track of 250 waste barrels. The lab puts a maximum of 42 barrels in a shipment, so it would've had to repeat the error six to 10 times, he said.

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