Lab reports big drop in number of waste violations

LANL lists 25 infractions in fiscal year 2017, down from more than 100 year before

Los Alamos National Laboratory has reported a significant decrease in violations of its hazardous waste permit from the state, citing just 25 infractions in fiscal year 2017, which ended in September, compared to more than 100 the previous year.

Lab officials, in a letter to the New Mexico Environment Department this week, attribute improvements to better record-keeping, changes in how the lab characterizes waste and improved worker training.

"Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to focus on program improvements and assisting hazardous waste generators across the Laboratory to improve compliance on a daily basis," lab spokesman Kevin Roark said in an email.

The report is among the most mild to come out of the laboratory in a year that has seen a series of troubling accidents, worker injuries and mishandling of nuclear materials. In the past several years, the lab has reported much longer catalogs of hazardous waste permit violations, with more than 400 in 2015.

Made public Friday, the report identifies six unlabeled drums of mixed waste -- material contaminated with radiation and other hazardous substances -- as well as a handful of instances when daily waste drum inspections were skipped. Workers also failed to protect two drums from moisture, which violates the permit, the report says.

At least one drum was misidentified, and the accumulation of waste in another was improperly tracked. There also were problems with the pace at which the lab posted some reports to an online public reading room, and the labcited communication lapses with state regulators.

While the lab's own report indicates improvements, particularly in identifying hazardous waste, a review of the lab's emergency management program by the National Nuclear Security Administration in late October found inadequate identification of other types of hazards. Failures to properly label and document the contents of waste containers also led to accidents at the lab earlier this year.

The details of the NNSA's report were made public this week by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory panel to the energy secretary that has faced threats of censorship and defunding from the Trump administration.

The National Nuclear Security Administration found that the lab's emergency management program was "adequate" but

that the implementation of a chemical management program led to "inadequate identification of hazards for emergency planning."

The agency found that there were "several instances where Field Office personnel identified hazardous biological agents and chemicals within LANL facilities, including some in proximity to nuclear facilities, which were incorrectly excluded or missing from hazard surveys."

Lab officials said the chemicals were stored safely.

Issues were identified, Roark said, "as part of the NNSA's and Laboratory's continued comprehensive process to improve emergency management operations at the Laboratory."

In the spring, one worker suffered second-degree burns after emptying the contents of an unlabeled container into a waste bag, causing the material to ignite. The incident temporarily paused work at the lab's plutonium facility.

On July 20, the lab was issued a notice of violation for issues found during an inspection by state Environment Department regulators in the spring.

The letter listed eight instances of noncompliance, including the fire that injured the worker, as well as other failures to properly train workers and to label waste, such as an unidentified Ziplock bag containing hazardous waste.

As a result of these violations, the lab said it had corrected the problems cited by state regulators and agreed to pay $34,441 to the state's Hazardous Waste Emergency Fund, according to a settlement agreement signed in early November.

Throughout the year, the lab also has requested emergency permits from the state to destroy unstable waste, including a substance found in a refrigerator inside a lab building and three containers of chemicals discovered in a cabinet.

The lab said the containers were "shock sensitive and pose an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment."

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.c­om.