Report: LANL nuclear waste mix potentially explosive

Los Alamos National Laboratory is storing hundreds, maybe thousands, of barrels of radioactive waste mixed with incompatible chemicals that have the potential to cause an explosion, putting workers and the public at risk, a government watchdog said in a report. LANL personnel have failed to analyze chemicals present in hundreds of containers of transuranic nuclear waste, making it possible for an incompatible chemical to be mixed in and cause a container to burst, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said in a September report.

Such an explosion would release radiation in doses lethal to workers and hazardous to the public, the safety board said. And yet the radiation levels that would be released have not been sufficiently estimated, it said.

Some of LANL's facilities store radioactive waste without any engineered controls or safeguards beyond the containers, the board wrote in a cover letter addressed to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"As such, additional credited safety controls may be necessary to protect workers and the public," the board said.

In 2014, a LANL waste container was packaged in a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts, which caused the container to rupture and spew radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The underground disposal site closed for three years while it underwent a $2 billion cleanup.

The incidents that released high levels of radiation at WIPP and Idaho National Laboratory have shown the importance of adding multiple layers of protection to reduce the consequences of an accident, the board said.

The report estimates that 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.

Federal guidelines define a lethal dose as high enough to cause 50 percent of the population to die within 30 days. Those levels range from 400 to 450 rem.

The 760 rem estimate is equal to 380,000 chest X-rays, said Dan Hirsch, retired director of programs on environment and nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"This is vastly above what's permissible for workers' exposure," Hirsch said, adding that far lower doses can cause cancer.

The 760 rem estimate is actually conservative, he said, noting that the WIPP explosion released four times that amount.

A spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration said officials were aware of the board's letter and report regarding issues with transuranic waste storage and handling. She didn't answer questions about the board's criticisms or how the agency would tackle the problems identified in the report.

"Maintaining the safety, security, and effectiveness of America's nuclear deterrent remains paramount to NNSA," she said.

About 2,000 waste containers remain at LANL because they don't meet WIPP's criteria for disposal, mainly because of chemical residues in the waste that make it volatile and even flammable, the report said.

"It's elementary," Hirsch said. "You put certain chemicals together and they explode."

Even water seeping into a barrel of waste containing sodium can trigger an explosion, Hirsch said. That's what made a waste container blow up at a Nevada nuclear storage site five years ago, he said.

Having the waste containers stored above ground magnifies the hazard, Hirsch said. If one of those burst, it would be far more dangerous than one exploding at an underground site like WIPP, he said.

The report points to years of waste disposal problems that haven't been corrected, said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group.

"LANL keeps kicking the waste problem down the road," Mello said. "LANL has always prioritized its weapons work, and this waste problem has built up for decades."

If the lab produces plutonium triggers for bombs as planned, it will generate more waste that must be disposed of, Mello said. So if it doesn't make its current waste safe and acceptable for WIPP, that waste might end up being stuck at the lab as a permanent hazard, Mello said.

The board, whose access the Energy Department has tried to restrict, has again shown how vital it is to report on hazards to workers - in this case, potentially lethal doses of radiation, said Jay Coghlan, executive director of nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

"These dangers will only grow worse as LANL becomes less and less a lab and more and more a permanent nuclear weapons production site," Coghlan said.

Any plutonium release is extremely hazardous, Hirsch said.

If someone inhales one millionth of an ounce of plutonium, that person has a 100 percent chance of getting cancer, Hirsch said. So every effort must be made to keep it contained and stabilized - something lab officials are not doing, he said.

"They seem to cut corners," Hirsch said. "And they're cutting corners with the most dangerous materials on Earth."

On our website Read this story at to view the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's report on Los Alamos National Laboratory's faulty radioactive waste storage, which includes the board's letter to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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