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

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.

Marc Dadigan

Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk blows tobacco smoke as Lee J. Polanca Sr. of the Coahuiltec people from Texas discuss the sacredness of water at the California State Capitol steps on Friday, September 26.

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.

WIPP was blamed for ramping up deliveries from 1 or 2 a day to 20-30 a day, while neglecting maintenance and safety protocol. WIPP workers were unprepared for the first major leak in its 15 year existence. The Mine Safety Health Administration also did not properly conduct inspections of WIPP. But LANL proved to be the bad actor by doing what they please without consulting with local, national partners or in between partners (Energy Solutions and Nuclear Waste Partnership) who rubber stamped whatever LANL wanted, or were ignored if they questioned. Among recent criticisms of LANL and Sandia Labs is the safety drills that have been performed were basically “just fire drills” with no actual simulations. All of this is in a study released by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, then presented to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz on September 2. The study looked at 17 sites across the country over the last 3 years, including LANL, Sandia Labs and WIPP.

DOE Secretary Moniz had finally visited Carlsbad and WIPP in mid-August (after being repeatedly requested by the NM congressional delegation) promising that, WIPP, the only facility to store low level nuclear waste in the country, “would reopen in 2 years…it’s a high priority…it’s a core facility for the country.” It spins out in the media as limited operations in early 2016 and full operation by late 2017.

A series of media reports also puts LANL in a bad light, as they seem to support the idea that LANL will do as it pleases if left unaccountable. LANL fired James E. Doyle, a critic who openly supported President Obama’s non-proliferation agenda, and the Council of Concerned Scientists (founded by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer) immediately asked for his re-instatement. Doyle believes he was fired as part of a Washington campaign of retribution for his refusal to support the lab’s central mission, which is the continued development and production of nuclear arms, at a cost of almost $2 billion per year at Los Alamos. With declining military budgets and interest in things nuclear, LANL wants the funding to continue and quash dissent inside the Lab. Doyle said he was told his article, “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?”, contained classified information by someone from the House Armed Services Committee even though the article had been approved.

“Classification has been used against me for the purposes of censorship of the article and retaliation against me for writing the article,” said Doyle, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

As part of this push from Washington, LANL is being looked at by Defense and Energy officials who want to massively increase the production of plutonium pits. The pits are used as triggers to set off thermonuclear reactions in weapons. Supporters say these won’t be for “new” weapons but to replace aging pits in the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Critics say LANL is now too small for the project and sits on a seismic fault. The current plutonium pits have a lifespan of 100 years, and have already been in use for around 50 years. Reporting to lawmakers in August, the Congressional Research Office described a national defense agenda to produce 30 war reserve plutonium pits per year by 2026 and up to 80 pits per year by 2030. Los Alamos started producing new plutonium pits in 2007, and has made only 30 since then. Before that the Rocky Flats, Colorado facility was closed down by the Feds in 1989 for “environmental crimes”, where they produced up to 2000 pits per year. At this point, Los Alamos is the only facility that can fulfill the project operationally, with major renovations and new funding of course.

An August 11 report says LANL is considering asking for funding to research biohazard agents. Considering how LANL helped to shut down WIPP, which lead to nuclear waste piling up around the country inside nuclear reactors, having them in charge of dangerous biological agents has led to criticism and scrutiny. An audit by the DOE’s Office of Inspector General questioned the financing of the projects and whether it was even needed. The report asked the National Nuclear Safety Administration to reconsider asking for the funding of the proposed lab extension at LANL for biohazard research. LANL is considering a $9.5 million expansion to open a “biosafety” lab that would study high risk agents “that cause serious and potentially lethal infections”. A building was erected for the project in 2003 but now has to be retrofitted to withstand high level seismic activity at a cost of about a half million dollars. The NNSA plan asks for another $8 million to build an additional lab to study “medium risk biological agents”. Critics counter that there are already other facilities set-up to deal with biological agents equally secure and less expensive.

After the 911 event, the Department of Homeland Security was created and granted authority over biological national security issues. These were previously under the purview of DOE and NNSA and now it has created fragmented programs under the NNSA. LANL critic Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said “LANL should not try to do everything but should rather try to focus on doing a few things well…accepting that its nuclear weapons mission is going to be shrinking…” Local New Mexicans agree with Mello and LASG to encourage LANL to continue work on alternative energy, long life storage batteries and AIDS research.

Alex Jacobs
September 24, 2014
Santa Fe, NM


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

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