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WIPP radiation leak leads to LANL shakeup

PUBLISHED: Saturday, September 27, 2014 at 12:02 am

Four top officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been reassigned and the lab’s private operator is losing the job of cleaning up nuclear waste as fallout from the lab’s role in a radioactive leak at the country’s nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad.

A lab official confirmed lab director Charlie McMillan’s reassignment of four managers in reaction to LANL’s transuranic waste handling miscues linked to the radiological release at the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The affected managers include Dan Cox, LANL deputy associate director of environmental programs; Jeff Mousseau, associate director of environmental programs; Kathy Johns-Hughes, director of the LANL TRU (transuranic waste) Program; and Tori George, program director for regulatory management.

Also – in a move that should impact the size of the government’s contract with lab operator Los Alamos National Security LLC – the Department of Energy confirmed that it will pull ” legacy environmental cleanup work” at LANL away from the National Nuclear Security Administration and give that job to DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.

The Los Alamos National Security (LANS) consortium’s contract under the NNSA is worth about $2 billion annually. About 10 percent – or $200 million – goes toward cleaning up waste, some of it decades old, at the Los Alamos site.

The LANS group includes the huge Bechtel company and the University of California. It was unclear Friday how the change will affect subcontractors, such as the company hired to process waste for shipping to WIPP, or employees at LANL and whether LANS could still bid for cleanup work under the new arrangement.

A statement from a DOE spokeswoman said the switch will allow LANS to “focus on the core national security missions.”

The lab has faced intense scrutiny after a waste barrel from LANL that had been sent to WIPP popped open in February because of a high-temperature chemical reaction, causing a radiation leak that has shut down the storage facility indefinitely.

Some radioactivity also was released into the atmosphere but not at levels that can cause harm, officials have said.

The cause of the reaction still isn’t known, but the lab has said the mix of waste and other materials in the barrel – including an added wheat-based kitty litter that hadn’t been used in the past – and a lead-laden nuclear worker’s glove possibly helped set it off. Other barrels at WIPP and in Texas also are considered at risk, including one with the same mix of materials and a glove.

Being ‘self-critical’

McMillan sent lab workers a memo Friday that said in part: “It is time for us to be introspective and self-critical to ensure we fully learn from this event. In the coming days and weeks, we will be taking additional actions to ensure we address the underlying causes and strengthen our processes to prevent future upsets or events.”

“Understanding the breached drum at WIPP continues to be a significant challenge to the Laboratory, but I believe we have our best people working on these issues,” McMillan wrote.

He said deputy associate lab director Enrique “Kiki” Torres will serve as acting chief of environmental programs “while the Lab works with DOE to develop a path forward.”

“Although the exact causes of the leak are still under investigation, I have determined that today’s changes are necessary now as part of our continued recovery actions.”

‘Deeper than individuals’

Lab watchdog Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said in an email the changes wouldn’t solve LANL’s management problems.

“The reason this is happening is because LANS’s errors shut down WIPP, which has shed a glaring light on dangerous violations of hazardous waste law at LANL,” Mello said. “LANS has been desperately trying to focus on ‘uncertainty’ and ‘mystery,’ when the acknowledged role of the LANL drum in shutting down WIPP has been clear for a long time.

“Dr. McMillan is right to take drastic action, but the problems at LANL go deeper than a few individuals. Handing off cleanup to DOE is one way to get rid of a risky project, but that impulse – splitting it off via subcontracting – was a main source of the problem in the first place. It’s an understandable corporate move, to get rid of risk and accountability by giving it to somebody else, but it remains to be seen if that’s a good idea.”

New Mexico Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester said NMED is optimistic about the transfer of cleanup to Environmental Management. “NMED feels EM is better equipped to handle the complexities of environmental cleanup at generator sites,” he said. “NMED had been pushing DOE to make this change for a long time.”

At WIPP, officials are working on a plan for decontamination and sealing off the rooms with the suspect waste. DOE officials have said it could take up to three years to reopen the multi-billion-dollar site.

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