Tag Archives: WIPP accidents

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

Cardinal Violations at the New Mexico Nuclear Dump

Drum damaged, Feb. 14, 2014

A 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 , 2014 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam.  The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers.

The accident contaminated the nation’s only dump for nuclear weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation’s elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel.  Six months after the accident, the exact chemical reaction that caused the drum to burst is still not understood. Indeed, the Energy Department has been unable to precisely identify the chemical composition of the waste in the drum, a serious error in a handling process that requires careful documentation and approval of every substance packaged for a nuclear dump….

The job of identifying the waste that is treated and prepared for burial will grow even more difficult in the years ahead when the Energy Department hopes to treat even more highly radioactive wastes now stored at nuclear processing sites across the country and transform them into glass that will be buried at future high-level dumps.

The accident at the facility near Carlsbad, N.M., known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closure that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule.

A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. Only nine days before the radiation release, a giant salt-hauling truck caught fire underground and burned for hours before anybody discovered it.  The report found that “degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment.”

The 15-year-old plant, operated by a partnership led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., “does not have an effective nuclear safety program,” the investigation found.

The accident raises tough questions about the Energy Department’s ability to safely manage the nation’s stockpiles of deadly nuclear waste, a job that is already decades behind schedule and facing serious technical challenges.

“The accident was a horrific comedy of errors,” said James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. “This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll.”

There is no official estimate of the cost of the accident, but outside experts and a Times analysis indicate it could approach $1 billion, based on the WIPP’s annual budget; the need to decontaminate the facility; upgrades to safety that officials already have identified; and delays over the next decade in the nuclear weapons cleanup program.

The WIPP was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production into ancient salt deposits, which would eventually collapse and embed the radioactivity for at least 10,000 years. The dump was dug much like a conventional salt mine, but with a maze of rooms for the waste. It handles low- and medium-level radioactive materials known as transuranic waste, the artificial elements — mainly plutonium — created in the production of nuclear weapons. Until the Valentine’s Day disaster, it had been operating without significant problems for 15 years.

The plant’s ventilation and filtration system was supposed to have prevented any of the radioactive material from reaching the environment. But investigators discovered that the Energy Department never required the ventilation system to meet nuclear safety standards. When monitors detected radiation, dampers were supposed to route the ventilation air into filters to prevent any radioactivity from reaching the surface, but the dampers leaked and thousands of cubic feet of air bypassed filters….

The investigators are looking at a variety of materials that may have been added to the drum, including lead, tungsten, acid and even kitty litter as possible factors in the explosion…Robert Alvarez, a former assistant energy secretary and a recent critic of the department’s performance, said the risk of a radioactive release at the WIPP was supposed to be one event every 200,000 years, not one in 15 years. “This was a cardinal violation,” he said…

At the Idaho National Laboratory, there are concerns that the WIPP closure could prevent the Energy Department from fulfilling its legal agreement to remove all transuranic waste by 2018. Curt Fransen, chief of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said federal officials had begun discussing building new warehouses at the lab to store waste as a result of the WIPP accident.At Washington state’s Hanford Site, the WIPP closure may lead to additional delays in shipping out 8,841 drums, boxes and other containers of transuranic materials to the New Mexico plant, said Deborah Singleton of the state’s Department of Ecology.

By RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery, Los Angeles Times,  Aug. 23, 2104