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May 28, 2014

Bulletin #190: Swarm of issues plagues LANL plutonium operations (Part I)

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Dear friends and colleagues –

No doubt many of you are reading this on a small screen.  There’s quite a bit of detail to follow so we hope you will patiently scroll down or else wait until you can see this bulletin on a larger screen!

We’ve got quite a bit of news to share, which we will do in several Bulletins.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the joint EPA-FBI raid that finally closed the Rocky Flats Plants (June 6), we will be addressing the swarm or convergence of problems in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL’s) plutonium operations.  We have to do this in stages.  These problems are important because they lead to greater insight into how to safely downsize LANL and understanding them will help Congress and the Administration understand better why construction of additional plutonium facilities is a supremely bad idea – for LANL and the nation.

It is possible that even the LANL Director, Dr. Charlie McMillan, will begin to see that.

We hope that a few citizens, especially a few New Mexicans, will understand better how it is that something as simple as the wrong choice of cat litter can bring hundreds of millions of dollars of work to a halt.  We don’t want that work halted, in this case, but this incident is a parable in which we can read the future of many complicated enterprises in a time when grandiose policies and entrenched corporate power collide with diminishing resources, education, and government oversight.  “For want of a nail…a kingdom was lost.”

There’s more, but let’s get started.

1.      First, let us know if you want more news and information than you are getting from us.

Most of you haven’t heard from us since you were copied on the press backgrounder of May 1 (U.S. claims of nuclear weapons retirement, dismantlement “may be misleading” – GAO)[1] and before that, Bulletin 189 on April 18 (Summer disarmament intensive in New Mexico).

A few of you – about 9% – receive somewhat more frequent communications because you are located in New Mexico and/or have been more active with the Study Group.  A small group gets private daily updates of key news, documents, and correspondence.  Of course, those who “like” the Study Group’s Facebook page will see daily news posts on their timeline. 

This is not an ideal situation, we know.  We will improve it.  Money and time pressures on us are great, and we’ve had to focus on working with our most important colleagues, who need (and respond to) much more detailed analyses and updates than we can send out on an open list.  We do want people who are actively working with us to be fully informed and fully participating, so please let us know if you want to do more with us and also hear more from us.

2.      Also, we hope you will help our work financially if you aren’t doing so already.

Some of you are also in a position to reach out to friends and colleagues on our behalf, including your colleagues in the philanthropic community, which unfortunately has been rendered highly supportive of U.S. militarism and the nuclear weapons enterprise, despite claims in some quarters to the contrary.  We will be happy to explain, given the opportunity.

We can’t publish our strategies and work plans on an open list like this but we can respond to your questions and can offer presentations to groups.  Meanwhile there are a number of ways to donate – such as through this link – and we will be happy to work with you on donations of stock (thus avoiding capital gains) or salable items like automobiles.  All donations to the Study Group are fully tax-deductible.

3.      A swarm of serious issues plague the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) plutonium facility (PF-4) and related TA-55 operations, raising questions about management and program focus, accountability, and the maturity of LANL’s ambitious TA-55 infrastructure plans.

The first of these significant issues is the LANL decision to use cellulose-based kitty litter (and subsequent failure to either notice the problem or sufficiently care about it) to absorb free liquids in more than 500 nitrate-salt-containing transuranic waste (TRU) drums.

This series of corporate decisions and/or oversights by Los Alamos National Security (LANS)[2] and its subcontractor Energy Solutions led to the internal body contamination of 22 workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), contamination of WIPP’s passages, shafts, and equipment, some minor environmental contamination outside WIPP, and shutdown of the whole WIPP site for an as-yet-indeterminate length of time, with the final outcome uncertain and its cost undetermined.

This was apparently caused by using cellulosic kitty litter (“Swheat Scoops” was the brand used) to absorb liquids in drums containing concentrated nitrate salts.  This was a mistake which any chemist or chemically-trained person would have avoided – and anyone walking by should have recognized as a problem, even at a glance.

We are also appalled that LANS used a contractor for this work, rather than hire, train, and supervise its own workforce.  We believe this choice speaks volumes about the low priority, low standard of care, and lack of accountability with which LANS approached this mission.  In the case of the maintenance and operations subcontract, LANS absorbed work that had been separately contracted.  In this case, the work was separated and given to another contractor.  Why?  Whatever the full set of reasons, having a separate contractor sets up an organizational wall.  LANS separated itself from a risky job – and eliminated sufficient management oversight.

In addition to the problems at WIPP, this mistaken waste repackaging campaign also caused new safety issues at LANL’s own TRU waste processing and storage areas, as well as at the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in Andrews, TX, where potentially reactive LANL TRU waste was also unfortunately sent (for stated reasons which don’t make sense and so may not all be public, be incomplete, or wrong).  There could also be new issues with waste staging and storage at other TRU generator sites as a result of the WIPP shutdown, and possibly program workflow issues at TRU generator sites (like LANL) as well.  TRU waste is now piling up at DOE sites.

A lot is now known about this unfortunate incident, although of course many questions remain.  The best short public explanation to date for the exothermic reaction observed at WIPP in a drum sent by LANL, which led to breaching of that drum, is James Conca’s most recent piece in Forbes.  While we don’t agree with all the opinions he expresses, we do agree with some of them.  And the facts Dr. Conca brings are helpful, interesting, and raise further serious questions about what happened at LANL, including about who knew what, when about the safety of these drums.

A great deal of information has been made available by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED; see for example here and here), at least about the WIPP aspect of this incident.  The New Mexico press has done a good job covering the WIPP side of the incident also.   But the problem originated at LANL, not WIPP.

It is very likely that LANL waste managers suspected one of its drums could have been at fault in the WIPP contamination incident as soon as rockfall and other mechanical causes were ruled out by the WIPP reentry teams, i.e. by April 23 if not well before that.  As this Bulletin is being edited we are just hearing from a reliable source that a spokesperson at the WIPP site told at least one reporter during the week of February 19 that an exploding LANL drum was a leading likely cause of the Valentine’s Day incident.  We want to know when LANL knew of the potential dangers posed by these drums and what actions they took, when.  We also want to know what really compelled NMED and LANL to decide in mid-March to ship TRU waste, including these drums, to WCS in Texas.  [We do not believe the “forest fire” theory is credible.  And by June, the spring winds in New Mexico are largely past.]

There are other theories we find more credible, having to do with Republican politics and campaign donations from the late owner of the WCS site, hopes for large role for West Texas in privatized nuclear and chemical waste disposal, getting this waste out of LANL so that LANS, a major campaign contributor, could meet an arbitrary but now financially-significant deadline (especially after last year’s loss of contract award term), and setting the stage for peremptory “cleanup” at LANL, with significant greenwashing and public relations value for all concerned.

On May 2, the DOE Carlsbad Field Office published a formal “declaration of potential inadequacy of the documented safety analysis” (PISA) under DOE’s nuclear safety regulations, suggesting that an energetic chemical reaction between nitrate salts and cellulosic material may have caused the WIPP contamination incident.  LANL was immediately notified, as was WCS – DOE safety officials even drove to WCS to discuss immediate actions which could be taken – because this meant the danger applied to these sites too, and in spades.  The drums of this type were numerous and on the surface with little or no other containment at these two sites, not 2,150 feet deep and behind HEPA filtration, as at WIPP.

So as of May 2, when DOE warned LANL of the danger from cellulose in its nitrate salt drums, if not before, LANL knew there could be very significant community and worker risk from this waste stream, identified as “LA-MIN02-V.001” (described in detail here).

On May 9 the New Mexican broke the “kitty litter” story (“Nuke Expert believes ‘kitty litter’ switch led to WIPP leak”).  The expert in question was James Conca (his column on this ran in Forbes that same weekend).  The Carlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press, and Albuquerque Journal followed.

On Friday May 16, two weeks after LANL learned of its serious safety problem, LANL Director Charlie McMillan sent a memo to his employees (“Feds say LANL barrel may be cause of WIPP leak,Santa Fe New Mexican, “Los Alamos container linked to nuke dump leak,” Associated Press) notifying them that the drum which burst was indeed from LANL and, since there were other drums from the same waste stream in storage at LANL, additional precautions had been taken and were being taken to ensure the safety of LANL employees and the community.

On Saturday, May 17, LANL subcontractor Energy Solutions prepared a spreadsheet using LANL data showing the locations and date of processing for nitrate salt drums.  The nitrate salt drums with “Swheat [Scoop]” kitty litter were processed in 2013 (mostly near the end of the year) and early 2014.  Some 368 containers of this waste are at WIPP (all below ground in panels 6 and 7), while 113 are at WCS and 57 are at LANL.

The following Monday, May 19, NMED issued an imminent and substantial endangerment order giving LANL just two days to submit a plan for securing the 57 drums from this waste stream that were still present at LANL  (“New Mexico says 57 nuke containers could be threat,” Associated Press).  But NMED, like LANL, surely knew about the problem on May 2.

The next day, May 20, NMED issued a second administrative order demanding that DOE permanently seal off Panel 6 and part of Panel 7 at WIPP, among other actions (see “State demands that DOE seal two rooms at WIPP,” Albuquerque Journal, May 21).  In this order, it is possible NMED is jumping the gun.  Perhaps it’s just our ignorance, but we are so far unaware of analyses of the explosive potential of the 368 drums of this type at WIPP, 313 of which are in Panel 6.  We are not WIPP experts; we are just raising the question.  There seems to have been quite a bit of energy released in this incident. On the other hand, containing contaminants from this accident, and any additional bursting drums, may be crucial for WIPP's future.

WIPP’s budget this year is $203 million (M), most of which will now be spent in dealing with this accident.  On top of the $216 M requested for WIPP next year, DOE is now requesting an extra $140 M for recovery efforts, the Weapons Complex Monitor (paywall) reported this past Friday.  The details and cost of the recovery plan are not developed.

Some WIPP workers may be furloughed, through no fault of their own.

Among the numerous issues that remain to be worked out among DOE and lawmakers includes whether to keep on the entire workforce at WIPP during recovery.  “I think for ’15 hopefully they’ll have a better grasp of the problem and start to address it and what to do with the current workforce,” the staffer said. “It’s that transition and gap between when they may reopen it or start to receive some shipments as opposed to a different type of workforce that’s needed to cleanup or build a new air shaft. Who knows what’s going to be required?”  (Weapons Complex Monitor, May 23, 2014)

So at this point resolution of the serious safety and operational issues at WIPP, LANL, and WCS still lies ahead.

It’s now water under the bridge, but TRU waste should never have been sent to WCS, as we told anyone who would listen back in March (“Nuclear waste from state lab may go to Texas,” March 20, “Los Alamos TRU to be stored at Waste Control Specialists,” Weapons Complex Monitor, March 21).

Putting large amounts of organic material together with large quantities of nitrates was a corporate error, from which corporate consequences should flow.  It would be wrong, and bad for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and for LANL, to take the easy way out and assign blame to some hapless underling who was assigned to the wrong job, given inadequate training, and not adequately supervised.  The fact is, many people had to review and sign off on the safety and regulatory compliance of these drums.

Producing these drums was a big operation.  The kitty litter used for this extensive campaign, which took place over several months at a minimum and generated more than 500 drums of potentially reactive waste, must have been clearly visible to many people, including supervisors and middle managers.  If managers weren’t engaged in a supervisory capacity they should have been.

To repeat, it is difficult to understand why anyone could use a cellulosic material to absorb liquids associated with nitrate salt and nitric acid residues.  No chemist would, as Dr. Conca (a chemist) also said, relaying shock from some of his insider chemist friends.  Apparently no supervisor with any chemistry background was involved.  How far up does the direct responsibility go?

Mitigating the internal chemistry of these drums, once filled, would have been (and is now) expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. For all these reasons it must have been unpopular with LANL management, especially once an agreement (the “Framework Agreement”) was made (and widely publicized in the local press) to get these and other drums totaling 3,706 cubic meters of TRU waste off “The Hill” by June 30, 2014.  Governor Martinez was prominently identified with this plan, the details of which (and political context of) this organization is not in a position to fully assess.

Suffice it to say that we doubt the value of the Framework Agreement and the wisdom of process that was followed to get it.[3]

Completion of this Agreement was also specifically written into the (very brief and vague) LANS annual Performance Evaluation Plan (PEP) for fiscal year (FY) 2014 as a contract requirement (“Successfully, and cost effectively, complete Framework Agreement commitments to the New Mexico Environmental Department…”, p. 7 here).

In FY13, LANS was docked one year of contract award term (worth about $2 billion in gross income) for failure to meet contract requirements – primarily for having to shut down most of PF-4’s operations starting in June of last year.  (PF-4 operations have not yet fully restarted, the topic of the next Bulletin.)  The previous year (FY2012), LANS received a “one-time waiver” from the recommended consequences of its failure that year to meet the minimum award term extension requirements, in part because a quarter-billion-dollar security improvement project was mismanaged.  More details of what turned out to be a highly controversial ruling by Acting NNSA Administrator Neile Miller at the time are on this page.  Ms. Miller no longer works for the government.

Part of the LANS management fee is also dependent on successful completion of the Framework Agreement.  As matters stand now, LANL will miss the (quite artificial) deadline and has caused an accident and ongoing safety hazard that places several program management objectives at LANL and WIPP at risk – a strong black mark under several performance measures.

For all these reasons, LANL was under considerable pressure to process and ship its legacy nitrate salt wastes.  Perceived or real “production pressure” is a common cause of accidents in the DOE weapons complex, as elsewhere.

It should be noted that DOE has the authority (42 U.S. Code § 2282a) to exact civil monetary penalties for violation of DOE safety regulations for contractors indemnified under the Price-Anderson Act – as LANS is – although this is a weaker tool than the contract extension question.

Too many people think LANL is a laboratory in the early-to-mid 20th century sense, rather than a huge bureaucracy, office complex, continuing education center for students and young PhDs, huge permanent waste disposal site, a big lobbying and public relations shop, a complex of surrogate nuclear testing machines and industrial-scale processing plants, and also a collection of laboratories.

In this case nobody associated with sufficient actual laboratory experience seems to have been involved in the pertinent decisions.  As is invariably the case in situations like this, management’s attention was evidently elsewhere.  We await the investigation, which may or may not be thorough and may or may not be available to external observers without heroic measures.

Corporate accountability for this blunder is a serious matter.  In addition to contamination of 22 workers, the severity of which we have not attempted to assess, this is a very expensive mistake.  WIPP could be shut down for anywhere from 18 months to three years (“DOE: Could be 3 years to fully reopen NM nuke dump,” AP, May 8).  A three-year shutdown would cost nearly $800 M (with the full recovery funding of $140 M, but not including any costs at other sites).  At the low end, with WIPP shut down for 18 months and no recovery funding, the cost would be in the neighborhood of $300 M, assuming there are no extra waste or program costs at other sites and assuming WIPP is fully functional after recovery, with no additional operating costs.  Some of these assumptions seem optimistic.

Like Dr. Conca, DOE, and the workers at WIPP who face possible unemployment, we at the Study Group would like WIPP to open for business again as soon as it can be made safe.  It’s an important site with an important mission, which we think should be expanded to include an additional 34 metric tons (MT) of plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.  This would be a very stable and compact waste stream, quite unlike “LA-MIN02-V.001” even with clay-based kitty litter, and far more easily and safely handled than most WIPP waste.

Yet there are many aspects of this situation we do not understand.  Like Dr. Conca and John Heaton, we do not fully understand why WIPP cannot be remediated more quickly.  Like Conca but unlike Heaton, we are wary of moving the nitrate salt drums at this time.  As mentioned above, we do not understand the explosive potential of these drums and wonder if anyone does or can, because information about what is in them is incomplete. The drum contents are known only by general process knowledge. We hope DOE and its contractors do understand that explosive potential.

We hope LANS has not ruined WIPP altogether.

In any case LANS should be held accountable.

My own (Greg’s) involvement with LANL began in 1984, when I was the first NMED environmental inspector at LANL.  It was obvious from the get-go that the LANL culture was dishonest and negligent from top to bottom; today’s cleanup program dates from the enforcement letter NMED sent after my first visit, which included criminal citations directed at the LANL Director and the DOE Los Alamos Site Office Manager.

That was a long time ago, but in the 1990s and 2000s several DOE and LANL employees and managers, current and former – some quite senior – have come to the Study Group describing their own particular horror stories relating to nuclear waste storage and disposal at LANL.  Traditionally, waste managers have not always had the bureaucratic clout to push back against the waste generating programs at LANL, who routinely brought drums for storage and disposal which did not contain what their labels said.  Local DOE safety officials have had to fight hard against production pressures from DOE headquarters as well as from LANL officials.

In one memorable case, a local DOE official was denied entrance to an (illegal) hazardous waste storage area at LANL.  The DOE official, a strong character, told the LANL manager to “Open this f***ing gate or I will call DOE security to open it for me.”  In another memorable incident, a former NMED official, then in charge of hazardous waste at LANL, ordered a truck to be loaded with LANL hazardous wastes and driven around the Rio Grande valley for the day to evade NMED inspectors.  Such tales could be told all night, were the right people in the room.

From this and much other and more recent experience we strongly doubt that LANS has any sort of “high reliability” culture.  For more evidence of this, see the next Bulletin.

Until then,

Greg and Trish, for the Study Group

[1] Some of you found that press release rather complicated.  GAO had to tiptoe around classified numbers and produced a report that, while important, was also murky, which could be simply summarized only up to a point.)  The ambiguities of “retirement” and “dismantlement” of U.S. nuclear weapons are especially important in international settings like the April 28 – May 9 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting.  The State Department always claims to be abiding by Article VI of that Treaty, which requires five countries (the U.S., U.K. Russia, France, and China, also the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) to undertake “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament…”

[2] LANL is a federally-owned site managed and operated by a private, limited liability, for-profit contractor, Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS).  LANS is a partnership of Bechtel, URS, B&W, and the University of California.[2]  Los Alamos is owned, but not managed, by the federal government.  LANS is fully indemnified for nuclear accidents under the Price-Anderson Act, even those resulting from negligence and willful acts, and in its contract.

[3] For example, we strongly believe there has been, and is now, little external fire danger to TRU drums at LANL at Area G.  Forest fires are not really an issue given the paucity of vegetation, and that danger can be mitigated at any time before a fire, or even during a fire.  Lightning is presumably taken care of by lightning arrestors.  Airplane crashes are pretty unlikely, given the distance to the Los Alamos airport (about 4 miles).  That leaves terrorist attacks, insider sabotage, and finally reactions within the waste itself, as safety motivators to quickly get the waste off The Hill.

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