Los Alamos National Laboratory has identified 45 barrels of radioactive waste so potentially explosive — due to being mixed with incompatible chemicals — that crews have been told not to move them and instead block off the area around the containers, according to a government watchdog’s report.
Crews have worked to ferret out drums containing volatile compounds and move them to a more secure domed area of the lab after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board issued a scathing report last year saying there were possibly hundreds of barrels of unstable nuclear waste.
The safety board estimated an exploding waste canister could expose workers to 760 rem, far beyond the threshold of a lethal dose. A rem is a unit used to measure radiation exposure. In its latest weekly report, the safety board said crews at Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, also known as N3B — the contractor in charge of cleaning up the lab’s legacy waste — have pegged 60 barrels with volatile mixtures and have relocated 15 drums to the domed area.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Energy’s environmental management office said they couldn’t comment on the report or on how the lab stores waste, citing lack of time to answer questions.
Volatile waste mixtures have received more attention since 2014 when a waste container from the Los Alamos lab packaged with a blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts burst in an underground chamber of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. The radioactive release contaminated the storage site so extensively it shut down for three years and cost $2 billion to clean up.
Hirsch noted some radioactive vapors escaped from WIPP’s underground site to the open air amid the leak. Federal reports have described a small amount of radioactivity slipping through exhaust vents that have since been sealed.
The fact that any radiation was emitted from below ground illustrates how destructive a waste barrel blowing up above ground could be, Hirsch said.
In the October report, the safety board said lab personnel had failed to analyze chemicals present in hundreds of containers of transuranic nuclear waste, making it possible for incompatible chemicals to cause a container to explode. Crews also never sufficiently estimated how much radiation would be released by such an event.
Waste with that kind of hair trigger should only be analyzed in a “hot cell,” with walls several feet thick, blast-proof glass and robotic arms that a technician operates to handle the materials, Hirsch said.