A sparking drum of nuclear waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) led to a temporary evacuation of a section of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s underground repository as officials investigated if any other drums of waste emplaced at WIPP posed a similar threat.
Investigators later found no one was hurt and no radiation was released, according to a March 12 letter from the lab to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Hazardous Waste Bureau.
The lab reported it happened as workers packed a drum of low-level transuranic (TRU) waste on Feb. 26 for delivery and disposal at WIPP.
TRU waste is equipment, clothing materials and other items radiated during nuclear activities.
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During the packing process, two high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters were placed into a drum, followed by a “metal waste item,” read the letter from the lab.
The item tore the bag containing the HEPA filters, and sparks were observed coming out of the container when the item contacted the filters.
Workers at the lab immediately pulled the fire alarm, the letter read, and left the area.
“Following immediate response and clearing of the scene by the Los Alamos Fire Department, the initial inspection revealed that there was no release of waste or radiological contamination outside of the glovebox,” the letter read. “Visual observations showed no damage to the drum-out bag or gloves.”
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An investigation began at the lab on March 1 and found the HEPA filters contained fragments from titanium welding which were oxidized when the bag was torn and caused the sparking.
The Environment Department was first notified of the incident three days later by WIPP on March 4, after the lab notified the repository.
The lab made its initial report to NMED on March 9.
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NMED continued to investigate the incident and waste packaging practices at WIPP and LANL as of March 23, said spokesperson Maddy Hayden, to evaluate both facilities for potential non-compliance.
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“NMED continues to communicate with DOE to ensure the highest levels of safety for workers, the public and the environment are met. We have received reports from both facilities and are gathering additional information to support NMED’s evaluation of this situation,” Hayden said in an emailed statement.
At WIPP, it was believed four drums already emplaced for disposal could have had similar compliance issues and the area was evacuated on March 5, NMED reported.
Finding no problems with any waste drums in the underground, WIPP lifted the evacuation order on March 18.
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All certification and shipments of TRU waste containers from Los Alamos containing items related to the incident were suspended by WIPP on March 24.
An investigation report from Los Alamos and its contractor Triad National Security was due on April 23 and WIPP planned to reevaluate the situation once the report was submitted.
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Donavan Mager with Nuclear Waste Partnership, the primary operations contractor at WIPP, said Los Alamos personnel identified two waste containers that were associated with the incident and emplaced in the underground but posed no risk to the public or environment and met the WIPP Acceptance Criteria (WAC).
He said the two drums contained no pyrophoric, or ignitable, materials, thus were compliant with the WAC.
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Mager said the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) were also reviewing the lab’s waste protocols.
“Upon being notified by LANL about the impacted waste containers, WIPP immediately implemented operational controls to ensure the safety of our employees,” he said. “While there were no facility safety issues or non-compliances with the WAC, NNSA and EM are working closely together in the review of LANL’s waste processing program.
“WIPP’s waste certification process remains one of the most robust in the world.”
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A 15-day report on WIPP’s contingency plan on March 19 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) from the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office ultimately showed no injuries, safety or environmental hazards or released materials.
No waste handling activities were underway at WIPP during the incident as a two-month maintenance pause was initiated on Feb. 15.
The investigation is ongoing.
“NMED’s evaluation will include an assessment of compliance at each facility and, if NMED determines that there was noncompliance, appropriate enforcement action will be considered,” Hayden said.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter