A story published today in the Albuquerque Journal says nitrates are now believed to be a part of the cause of the WIPP leak of americium and plutonium last February.
Before there was a cat litter problem in the packaging of waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory, there were nitrates.
The public focus on why a LANL waste drum popped open, causing a radioactive leak that shut down the nation’s nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad in February, has been on organic cat litter that shouldn’t have been combined with oxidizing nitrates. That apparently created a combustible mix that somehow ignited and breached the drum.
But it turns out a red flag should have been raised about any processing of waste containing nitrates, even without organic materials added in, before waste drums were shipped from Los Alamos for storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
About two years ago, a procedural change was made at Los Alamos, without the standard safety review, removing requirements to stop waste processing and inform management if “Class 1 oxidizers” like nitrates were encountered in the waste stream.
LANL self-reported the issue and it was disclosed last month in a brief public report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
The Dec. 19 report says that personnel at LANL’s Waste Characterization, Reduction and Repackaging Facility recently indicated that “a procedural change” in waste processing was made without an adequate review called an “unresolved safety question determination.” “The procedural change,” says the safety board report, “was made over two years ago and removed the requirements to stop waste processing and inform management if, among other things, Class 1 oxidizers (such as nitrates), flammable metals or pyrophoric materials were encountered.”
The report goes on to add that the basis-for-operations plan for the Los Alamos waste facility “does not allow processing of these types of materials.”
So the organic litter, an idiotic choice of material of absorbent material, reacted to the nitates, which is a Class 1 oxidizer. But the nitrates shouldn’t have been there. Waste processing should have stopped and management should have been informed if nitrates were present in the nuclear waste. But a procedural change was made two years ago that relaxed this requirement.
But the procedural change did not only refer to nitrates. It also refers to flammable metals and pyrophoric materials. So these substances might have been in the drums too.
A pyrophoric substance (from Greek πυροφόρος, pyrophoros, “fire-bearing”) ignites spontaneously in air at or below 55°C (130°F). Examples are iron sulfide and many reactive metals including uranium, when powdered or thinly sliced. Pyrophoric materials are often water-reactive as well and will ignite when they contact water or humid air. (Wikipedia)
Plutonium itself if pyrophoric. Why was the rule relaxed, and why were they putting known dangerous materials in the drums?
It was also revealed that WIPP will not be reopening until 2018.
While limited operations are expected to resume sometime in 2016, officials said a new ventilation system and an exhaust shaft would need to be installed before shipments of waste could be accepted again by the plant. That work could take until 2018 to complete…
Watchdog Don Hancock, who attended Wednesday’s meeting in Carlsbad, said officials confirmed that workers would have to wear protective clothing and use breathing equipment while sealing the bunker.
“The initial closure of Panel 6 was supposed to be one of the quick and easy things to be done. It’s not done. It’s not quick. It’s not easy. There are going to be risks to workers just to do that,” he said.
“This is in fact unprecedented and very hard and it’s taking longer and it’s going to cost more than what they’ve generally wanted to talk about,” Hancock said of the overall recovery effort.
Despite delays and added costs, Hancock said WIPP’s reopening shouldn’t be driven by any particular date. He said alternatives need to be considered and the public and technical experts should be part of that process.
A remote video camera is being installed. Supposedly, visual evidence as to how many and the extent of the damage to the waste drums will finally be obtained.
Crews are also using a video camera attached to a special mechanical arm to get a better look at the area where the drum from Los Alamos ruptured. That work is expected to be complete in about two weeks, clearing the way for investigators to finish their final accident report.
Health update: I developed a bad ME relapse just before New Year’s, around the time of the last post here. I have not been able to concentrate or remember anything longer than 10 seconds. That means, any thought or effort has to be formulated within 10 seconds before it goes away. I think the relapse had something to do with the very cold weather we have been having. It has gotten better today, and hopefully it will stay better.