Several ongoing safety concerns at New Mexico’s biggest shipper of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad could impact operations as a federal oversight agency requested the lab update its guidelines and analyze environmental impacts.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is the fourth-biggest shipper in the nation of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and the main producer of the waste in New Mexico from its facility in the northern region of the state.
Since WIPP began accepting waste in 1999, Los Alamos sent 1,543 shipments of TRU waste to the site, records show. WIPP also received 1,697 shipments from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, 2,045 from the former Rocky Flats facility near Denver and 6,716 shipments from Idaho National Laboratory.
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TRU waste is mostly clothing, equipment and other materials irradiated during nuclear research and other activities, sent to WIPP from Department of Energy sites across the U.S. for disposal via burial in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
Los Alamos has a history of problems with its shipments to WIPP. Chiefly, in 2014 a drum of waste from Los Alamos ruptured in the WIPP underground and released radioactive material after being mispackaged ahead of emplacement, leading to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations and halting shipments.
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Amid recent pressure from state lawmakers and officials in New Mexico to prioritize Los Alamos waste, providing more benefit to the state that hosts the repository, DOE officials reported the repository was accepting about two shipments per week from the lab.
Reinhard Knerr, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office told lawmakers during a recent committee meeting that waste from Los Alamos was accepted at WIPP as soon as its ready, and the volume of waste disposed of at the repository was dependent on operations at the lab.
A series of safety issues reported by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in August could have impacted waste shipments from Los Alamos which declined to six shipments throughout August, per the latest shipment data supplied by DOE.
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That was a slight decline from eight shipments from Los Alamos received in July, and seven in June. In May, WIPP received three shipments from Los Alamos.
So far in federal fiscal year 2022, running from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022, WIPP received 62 shipments from Los Alamos, meeting the goal Knerr shared with lawmakers at the Aug. 5 meeting a month before the end of FY 2022.
That was an increase, records show, from 56 Los Alamos shipments accepted in FY 2021.
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Nuclear waste safety problems persist at Los Alamos
Several “inadequacies” at the lab’s Area G, where waste is prepared for shipment and disposal at WIPP, were identified by staff at Los Alamos, per an Aug. 17 letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
The Board reported 24 problems related to safety in Area G were found during a recent analysis by Newport News BWXT-Los Alamos (N3B) – the contractor that oversees operations in that portion of the lab.
This could limit operations in Area G, read the letter, as the concerns are addressed.
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“While DOE is accepting high mitigated offsite dose consequences for several accident scenarios, N3B will only be authorized to perform a limited set of operations in the near term,” the letter read.
TRU waste operations at Los Alamos also drew concerns from the board which, in an Aug. 5 weekly report, pointed to an investigated event where the waste was “inadvertently” stored in a container for “low-level” waste different from TRU waste.
“Fact-finding participants noted that the proper waste disposal process was not adequately relayed to maintenance workers,” read the report.
“Facility personnel also acknowledged that their current work planning processes have weaknesses in identifying material at risk during demolition activities and integrating waste planning. They plan to improve their work planning processes to address these weaknesses.”
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TRU waste mobile loading operations were also conducted by LANL officials for the first time since October 2020, per the report, as some of the containers did not meet requirements for indoor loading and shipment to WIPP, thus the added process was needed.
Other concerns for Los Alamos’ operations recently expressed by the board involved Los Alamos’ preparation for radioactive leak incidents as it called on Los Alamos to update its ventilation system.
The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees Los Alamos, announced Aug. 19 it was preparing a sitewide analysis on the lab’s environmental impacts during the next 15 years of operations.
A 45-day public comment period was started that day, seeking input from stakeholders for three scenarios: continuing operations without any changes to the facilities, modernizing the facility as needed for ongoing activities and expanding Los Alamos’ operations “to respond to future national security challenges and meet increasing requirements.”
One of those expansions could see production of plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear warheads, increase at Los Alamos toward a DOE goal of building 30 pits a year at the facility by 2026, aiming to upgrade the U.S.’ nuclear arsenal.
“The continued operation of the laboratory is critical to NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program, to preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons worldwide, and to many other areas impacting national security and global stability,” read a statement from the DOE.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.