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A set of internal Los Alamos National Laboratory emails made public this week outline additional changes made in materials used to process transuranic waste at the lab as the Department of Energy continues to investigate how those changes were approved and if they were factors in the radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that has led to a shut-down of the facility. Earlier this month, officials said that a recently used organic absorbent made from kitty litter may have reacted with nitrate salts in some waste drums after a LANL drum found in the WIPP underground was found cracked open with evidence of a reaction. Additionally, last year LANL transuranic waste subcontractor EnergySolutions switched two acid and base neutralizers, which also could possibly have reacted with the nitrates, according to messages posted this week by the New Mexico Environment Department.”Reaction chemistry supports this theory and LANL is investigating this as a possibility,” NMED spokesman Jim Winchester said in a written response. While it appears that those neutralizers were used in the breached container, “NMED is waiting for documentation regarding this,” Winchester said.

The changes in neutralizers were requested by Energy- Solutions and approved by LANL officials, according to the documents. It’s unclear whether the changes were approved by the Department of Energy’s Central Characterization Project, and NMED is investigating whether there are any potential violations to the WIPP permit related to the approvals. CCP and WIPP managing contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership noted the neutralizer switch in a May 8 internal document that says a violation may have occurred.”During recent discussions with LANL personnel it has been stated on numerous occasions that not only did the packaging personnel absorb the liquids, but prior to absorbing them they were neutralized using various neutralizing agents,” states the document posted by NMED. It adds: “The chemicals used for neutralizing the acids or bases have not been considered in the [acceptable knowledge] record. These chemicals not being considered could lead to an incomplete [acceptable knowledge] record which could be a violation of the WIPP hazardous waste facility permit requirements.”

When asked this week at a town hall meeting held in Carlsbad, N.M., whether the switches in processing materials at LANL were approved by CCP or DOE officials, DOE Carlsbad Field Office Deputy Manager Dana Bryson said: “That’s a question on an ongoing investigation. The accident investigation team is on-site at LANL right now. I’m not going to comment on an ongoing investigation where interviews are ongoing in real time.” When questioned again, he said: “Rather than give you a response that is not from that board, I think the best response is to wait for the report from the accident investigation board, and then we will have a documented, clear, concise report.” LANL and NWP did not respond to requests for comment about the approval process at the lab or the neutralizer changes. EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said in a statement: “While the issue remains under investigation we will wait and comment once the test results are made known.”

Technician: Issues ‘Not My Area of Expertise’

In requesting approval for switching an acid neutralizer from a Chemtex formula to Spilfyter Kolorsafe neutralizer last August, an EnergySolutions technician said he did some “limited research” and found no reactivity issues with the liquid neutralizer and plutonium if solidification steps are taken. But he added: “as the water reactivity of plutonium and criticality safety issues are not my area of expertise it may be advisable to have LANL personnel weigh in on these issues as well,” according to the August 2013 email to LANL officials by EnergySolutions Industrial Hygienist Zeke Wilmot. LANL Subcontract Technical Representative Andy Ezell approved the change in September, noting in an e-mail that EnergySolutions should “perform initial surveys and/or exposure monitoring to identify appropriate [Personal Protective Equipment].”

Neutralizer Could React With ‘Metallic Nitrates’

The base neutralizer was switched in April 2013 from a Spilfyter Kolorsafe neutralizer to a Pig Base Encapsulating Neutralizer. The Safety Data Sheet accompanying that product states: “Depending on the chemical being neutralized, significant quantities of heat may be generated, including some off-gassing.” Additionally, “metallic nitrates” is included under a list of incompatible materials. “It appears that the previous neutralizers came in solid and liquid form and were both organic and inorganic but the document is not clear. NMED is reviewing the report and still has questions,” Winchester said.

DOE Finalizing Panel Closure Plan

Meanwhile, DOE is expected late this week to submit a plan to NMED for accelerated closure of open panels in the WIPP underground that contain hundreds of additional suspect drums from LANL. NMED last week ordered DOE to complete the plan by May 30 for expedited closure of the site of the release: Panel 7 Room 7, which contains 55 drums containing nitrate salts. It also asks for closure of Panel 6, a full panel that contains 313 similar drums. Bryson this week outlined several ways panel closure can be achieved: “We can have a steel bulkhead that’s sealed and prevents radiation from coming through. Another method is that we’ll put 100 feet, just pushing mined salt there. Another method is you take chain link and you put a cloth on it that prevents airflow,” he said at the town hall meeting. “I think what you’re going to see if a combination of those methods.”

No Additional Entries for Several Weeks

As investigations continue at Los Alamos and Savannah River National Lab on a potential reaction in LANL drums, additional expeditions into the WIPP underground to investigate the release site will be suspended for several weeks as ventilation filter changes take place. NWP will continue making preparations this weekend for the changeout of two filters that were contaminated by the February events that exchange air between the aboveground and the WIPP underground. The switch will allow for better ventilation in the underground and ultimately for more work to be conducted. “While we are doing the filter replacement activities we won’t be making any entries because of the low-flow conditions,” NWP official Tammy Reynolds said. “However, we will be continuing to evaluate what the next steps are and planning for future entries as soon as we come out of the filter replacement activities. So that effort will be ongoing in parallel.” —Kenneth Fletcher

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