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LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after WIPP leak via Santa Fe New Mexican

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 — though one worker has filed a lawsuit saying his health has drastically deteriorated due to radiation exposure.

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