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"Forget the Rest" blog



Former nuclear waste inspector for LANL says corners were cut

WIPP barrel video link

Created: 11/16/2014 10:06 PM
By: Caleb James, KOB Eyewitness News 4

How many shortcuts and secrets resulted in nuclear waste so volatile it's been called a potential bomb by experts? 

Did Los Alamos National Lab cut corners to make money, and cause massive problems at the WIPP site?  

KOB's partners at the Santa Fe New Mexican accessed thousands of internal e-mails and documents leading up to and following a February accident -- when a 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste shipped from Los Alamos 300 miles away to the WIPP storage facility cracked open, and exposed workers to radiation.

"One drum from Los Alamos... burst its lid, and it got very hot," said Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello. "The drum in question was basically kind of a time bomb."

Valentine's Day inside the WIPP nuclear waste storage facility -- a 55 gallon drum of waste shipped from LANL burst -- leaking radiation. 

At least 20 workers were contaminated. 

A switch from clay-based kitty litter to a highly acidic organic kitty litter used to soak up excess liquid in the storage process created the volatile mixture.

"Everything suggests that they should have known that," said Mello. 

Now, a major question remains.   

"Why did they make those ridiculous chemistry errors," Mello asks. 

E-mails and memos obtained by the New Mexican suggest it was known that mixture was a potential explosive -- one e-mail written by James O'Neill from the National Nuclear Security Administration told the Carlsbad Department of Energy Office, "...putting the type of kitty litter... created a patented explosive mixture." 

The field officer wrote back: 

"How can the explosive mixture be in the drum content that could be sent to WIPP?"  

The Los Alamos Study Group reacted to the New Mexican's 6-month long investigation Sunday night. 

"We do know that one subcontractor wrote and asked a question,  'Is this really safe?'" said Mello. 

Mello is a former nuclear waste inspector for LANL. He now runs the study group -- a watchdog group that keeps tabs on the lab. 

"Corners were cut," he said. 

In the pursuit of a $2.2 billion contract renewal, Mello says the e-mails and memos suggest the privately run lab ignored warning signs and potential danger in order to be on time. 

"We need a thorough investigation of who knew what, when," he said. 

Mello says a lab culture focused on deadlines and profits is a ticking time bomb too. 

"If management does not change, there will be a worse accident," he said. 

The New Mexican's 6-month long investigation also references an assessment conducted by WIPP personnel that estimates over 5,000 drums of waste may contain the volatile organic kitty litter that caused the one drum to split open. 

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