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Feds say LANL barrel may be cause of WIPP leak

WIPP leaking barrel of waste
The Department of Energy said Friday that a container from Los Alamos National Laboratory that was stored at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad ‘has a cracked lid and shows evidence of heat damage.’ Officials believe the container may be the cause of the WIPP radiation leak. Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

By Milan Simonich
The New Mexican | Posted: Friday, May 16, 2014 7:00 am

A team working deep underground to determine the cause of a radioactive leak at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has pinpointed a damaged waste container from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy said Friday.

“In the new pictures, the LANL container has a cracked lid and shows evidence of heat damage. Workers will continue investigating to determine what caused the container breach and if any other containers were involved or damaged,” the Department of Energy said in a statement.

The crew that descended 2,150 feet through mining hoists Thursday photographed the damaged container.

Locating it was a step toward determining what forced the shutdown three months ago of the plant 26 miles from Carlsbad, but this does not solve the mystery, said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program and administrator of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

“My general reaction is that they are getting closer to identifying the container or containers that are problems, but it doesn’t tell us why they’re problems. There’s still a lot more that we don’t know,” Hancock said in a phone interview.

He said the photographic evidence was not necessarily consistent with one theory that an absorbent material similar to kitty litter had caused the leak.

Jim Conca, a geochemist who posited the kitty litter theory, said he considered it unlikely that something else triggered the problems at WIPP, which is America’s only permanent underground repository for waste from nuclear weapons.

Conca described what he believed was a subtle breakdown of the absorbent material.

“It’s not like an explosion, like a bomb kind of thing. It’s more of a slow burn like charcoal briquettes,” said Conca, of Richland, Wash.

He worked for years at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Conca also has experience with operations at WIPP and the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada that once was to be a nuclear waste repository.

Teams at WIPP have been focusing on a particular storage area where a plant spokesman said there were signs of “a disturbance.”

Wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatuses, they began their underground search for the contamination and its cause in early April.

The leak occurred Feb. 14, but safety precautions mandated that the mine shafts have two means of egress and that workers could enter the repository without undue risk.

Charlie McMillan, director of LANL, sent a message to his employees after learning that the damaged container was from his lab.

“The laboratory is fully cooperating with WIPP, the Department of Energy and the state of New Mexico. My top priority — and the top priority of DOE — is to ensure the safety of our employees, the community and the environment,” McMillan wrote.

He said additional safety precautions had been taken to make sure similar waste drums at the lab and those sent to Waste Control Specialists in Texas are safe.

“Based on this, we do not believe there is any imminent threat to the safety of our employees, the public or the environment at this time,” McMillan said.

Greg Mello, who heads the Los Alamos Study Group that advocates nuclear disarmament, said he was not satisfied with an internal review.

“We need another set of eyes on this,” Mello said. “The lab deserves credit if it’s taking these precautions. On the other hand, the lab always says things are safe.”

Mello said an independent audit should be done, and that it ought to include the state Environment Department.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at

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