Tag Archives: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)

Mishandling Nuclear Materials: who is to blame

Plutonium in can.

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times from 2012 to 2107 according to government documents.While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or – in the worst cases – after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.  Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.

In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory – a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico – admitted five weeks ago that in June 2017  it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes, instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident… According to the initial explanation Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23, 2017 the lab used air transport because one of the other labs – located in Livermore, California ― needed the plutonium urgently.

The incident – which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos ― drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons work. It provoked the Energy Department to order a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.

In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials, Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 1, 2017

See also the Nuclear Weapons Establishment, Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

Funding Nuclear Fusion Technologies: ARPA

The sun is a natural fusion reactor. image from wikipedia

ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is a United States government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. It is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

From the ARPA website

Fusion energy holds the promise of virtually limitless, clean power production. Although fusion has been demonstrated in the laboratory, scientists have been unable to successfully harness it as a power source due to complex scientific and technological challenges and the high cost of research….Attaining [the conditions for the production of fusion] conditions is a very difficult technical challenge. Additionally, many current experimental techniques are destructive, meaning that pieces of the experimental setup are destroyed with each experiment and need to be replaced, adding to the cost and time required for research.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), along with HyperV Technologies and other partners, will design and build a new driver technology that is non-destructive, allowing for more rapid experimentation and progress toward economical fusion power.   LANL’s innovation could accelerate the development of cost-effective fusion reactors, which may provide a nearly limitless supply of domestic power and eliminate dependence on foreign sources of energy.
Fusion reactors offer nearly zero emissions and produce manageable waste products. If widely adopted, they could significantly reduce or nearly eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector. LANL’s approach, if viable, could enable a low-cost path to fusion, reducing research costs to develop economical reactors.

HyperV Technologies Corp.
University of Alabama in Huntsville
University of New Mexico
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Tech-X Corporation

Kitty Litter and Nuclear Waste do Not Mix: from Los Alamos to WIPP

kitty litter

The US energy department is to fund $73m in road and other infrastructure projects in New Mexico as compensation for radiation leaks at a nuclear laboratory and underground dump.The deal struck between the department and New Mexico forgoes fines and instead applies funds to upgrade federal nuclear facilities and surrounding communities in the state, according to settlement documents.  Projects include construction of a $5m emergency operations centre in Carlsbad, near where the nuclear waste dump leaked radiation in February 2014.

The leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or Wipp, exposed 22 workers to radiation in amounts not expected to threaten their health and led to the indefinite suspension of key operations at the site, which is the energy department’s only permanent underground disposal facility for certain types of waste from US nuclear labs.The radiation accident was caused by “chemically incompatible” contents, including cat litter, which reacted in a barrel of waste and caused it to rupture, according to a federal probe of the mishap.  The breached drum containing radioisotopes such as plutonium was improperly packaged with the wrong sort of absorbent litter at the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe before it arrived at WIPP for disposal, investigators found….

The deal includes $34m to improve roads around the Wipp site, $12m to improve nuclear waste transportation routes in and around Los Alamos, and $9.5m in stormwater management upgrades at the lab’s complex.In addition it provides $10m for improvements to water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos and $2.75m for an independent compliance and operational review. Energy department officials have estimated the cost of the initial recovery of the dump at $240m and that it might be two years or more before it is fully operational.

Excerpts from New Mexico radiation accident: $73m compensation deal struck over leak, Guardian, Apr. 30, 2015

Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

LANL container damaged at WIPP. image from doe

The Timeline

June 2011: Las Conchas Fire threatens transuranic nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos.

Jan. 5, 2012: New Mexico Environment Department and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) prioritize cleanup of above-ground legacy waste and agree on a June 30, 2014, deadline to ship all Cold War-era nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

June 26, 2012: Gov. Susana Martinez visits Los Alamos to celebrate the 1,000th shipment of waste to WIPP.

Aug. 1, 2012: LANL changes policy, requiring organic kitty litter instead of the clay-based variety to absorb liquids in packaging of nuclear waste.

September 2012: The lab begins using organic kitty litter exclusively as an absorbent in waste.

August 2013: LANL officials authorize waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions to add neutralizer to acidic waste, despite manufacturer’s warnings about incompatibility.

Dec. 4, 2013: Waste Drum 68660 is packaged at Los Alamos for shipment to WIPP.

Feb. 5, 2014: An underground truck fire forces evacuation at WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: A chemical reaction causes the drum to rupture, triggering a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination and indefinitely shut down WIPP.

May 2014: The first public reports emerge that organic kitty litter may have been a factor in the radiation leak at WIPP, and WIPP officials learn details about the waste from LANL that indicate the lab hid certain truths about its contents and their volatility.

June 17, 2014: LANL scientists conclude heat from the ruptured drum at WIPP could have made up to 55 more drums stored nearby more volatile.

July 23, 2014: LANL officials acknowledge a lead-contaminated glove in the waste drum that burst at WIPP has been added to the factors being investigated as the possible cause.

Sept. 30, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy announces full resumption of activities at WIPP could be five years away and estimates the recovery cost at $500 million.

Oct. 1, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General issues a report condemning LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and warnings against mixing volatile components in the drum that ruptured at WIPP.

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.  The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.
The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.
Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems….

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.  As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.,,,

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.  “All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery…. Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.  A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held. “LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area. … A

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak, The New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2014

The Mismanagement of Radioactive Waste: Los Alamos, United States

storage of radioactive waste at wipp

Excerpt from Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste  Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory –Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department’s Waste Isolation Plant by U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General Office of Audits and Inspections, Sept. 30, 2014

The Department of Energy’s (Department) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC is one of the Nation’s premier national security laboratories. As part of its mission, LANL generated a large volume of transuranic (TRU) waste consisting mostly of radioactively contaminated clothing, tools, rags, debris and soil. In January 2012, a framework agreement was established between the Department and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to ship 3,706 cubic meters of combustible and dispersible TRU waste from LANL to the Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for permanent disposal by June 30, 2014. The Department established the Central Characterization Project (CCP) to characterize and certify waste to help ensure that it met WIPP’s waste acceptance criteria. Since the TRU waste campaign began, LANL reported that it had shipped TRU waste to WIPP and was on track to meet target disposal dates.

On February 14, 2014, a radiological release from one TRU waste drum was detected in the underground repository at WIPP. As a consequence, underground operations at WIPP were suspended and the Nation’s only operating deep geologic repository for the permanent disposal of defense-related TRU waste was shut down for an indefinite period. The impact of the shutdown, both incurred to date and in the future, is valued in terms of tens of millions of dollars….

On May 15, 2014, visual evidence confirmed a breached container that originated from LANL. We initiated a special inquiry to determine whether LANL appropriately managed the remediation and repackaging of waste shipped to WIPP….

Notably, Los Alamos National Security, LLC and its subcontractor, Energy  Solutions, added potentially incompatible materials to waste stored in drums during the waste  remediation process at LANL’s Waste Characterization, Reduction and Repackaging Facility  (WCRRF). Specifically:

• Organic absorbent material (organic kitty litter) was added to the waste stored in the  drums, materials that may result in a chemical reaction; and
Liquid acid neutralizers were also addded to the drums, substances that were potentially
incompatible with the stored waste.

LANL’s waste processing and safety related control procedures should have prevented the addition of these potentially incompatible materials. However, the process failed in this matter.
Specifically, LANL’s procedure revision process failed to adequately analyze potential reactivity
issues and/or provide sufficient detail in the waste remediation procedure. In addition, LANL
violated established environmental requirements by treating a corrosive waste outside its
environmental permit by adding neutralizers and absorbents to the waste.