LANL reports more safety lapses at waste sites (December 2015)

Thousands of mislabeled waste containers, missing safety equipment and a broken emergency alarm system were among the more than 400 hazardous waste permit violations that Los Alamos National Laboratory listed in a report to the state this week.

The report, submitted annually to the Waste Management Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department, largely characterized the violations as “inconsistencies” in record-keeping and labeling. However, it is the latest in a series of reports revealing a culture of negligence and lax safety protocols at the lab and follows a February 2014 radiation leak that shut down the nuclear waste storage facility in Southern New Mexico after a mislabeled and mishandled LANL drum burst there.

As a result of these lapses, the federal government announced last week that it will end its contract with the private consortium that overseas the lab, Los Alamos National Security, in 2017.

The hazardous waste report, submitted to the state Monday following a three-week extension beyond the original deadline, details inspections of LANL’s waste storage areas between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30 of this year. It states that while none of the violations “posed a potential threat to human health or the environment,” the number of violations listed has sharply increased over those reported in previous years: In the 2015 fiscal year, inspectors found 421 instances of noncompliance, compared to just 76 in fiscal year 2014 — excluding the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant leak in February 2014, which was detailed in a separate report — and only 14 violation in 2012.

The state Environment Department confirmed Thursday that the spike in violations is in part due to higher scrutiny imposed this year.

The increased oversight comes on the heels of the incident at WIPP, in which a container with a volatile mix of chemicals ruptured, exposing staff to low levels of radiation and leading to a massive cleanup and security effort that has largely shut down the waste repository and is estimated to cost at least $500 million. An audit by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Energy in July found that current lapses in safety protocol at the lab could contribute to “nuclear accidents,” and in November, a federal report found that lab wasn’t effectively tracking and remedying safety issues.

The new report highlights problems that have taken years to resolve, as well as problems that reoccur annually.

In early 2014, about 3,000 “parent” containers used to hold transuranic waste were out of compliance with the lab’s hazardous waste permit, but as of the new report’s filing, more than 2,000 of those containers had yet to be inspected.

Among a litany of other mislabeled containers, many were classified as “non-hazardous” or even “empty” — and stored upside-down — but were found, in fact, to contain hazardous waste. Other containers had no identification or were double-labeled as both “hazardous” and “non-hazardous,” resulting in the need for re-inspection.

And despite the report’s claim that none of these issues posed a potential health or environmental threat, at least three toxic waste drums failed to identify the dangerous chemicals inside them, one drum was missing a label required to alert workers of potentially fatal toxins and another drum was missing any indicator that the materials inside were potentially explosive.

Chloroform, an odorless chemical used widely for its anesthetic properties, was found to be improperly stored and managed. And a number of flammable waste containers were found grouped with other waste drums, rather than stored in a separate area, as the state permit requires.

Some of the more glaring violations in the report also posed basic safety risks to workers, including broken telephone systems, and dysfunctional showers and eye-wash stations needed to remove chemical exposure to workers, should it occur. The report listed another long-overdue safety hazard: Emergency evacuation alarms, inoperable since 2013, had yet to be fixed at Area G, a 63-acre site that holds the lab’s remaining nuclear waste from decades of nuclear weapons development that began with the Manhattan Project.

“It only takes one drum,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog organization. “There are too many problems in this report to feel at all comfortable. It suggests there is some kind of long-standing, deep compliance problem. … There should be consequences.”

Mello said he found much of the mismanagement in the report “beyond imagination.” He also noted that the extension granted to the lab allowed the report to be released after the federal allocation of nuclear funds earlier in the month.

Matt Nerzig, director of communications for the laboratory, confirmed in an email that the lab had self-reported the 421 violations, but he had no additional comments on the report.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said in an email Thursday that the department’s goal is for LANL to be “fully compliant.” However, he said he appreciated the “increased rigor” demonstrated in the report.

“Because of the events that occurred at LANL and WIPP, the Environment Department is requiring LANL to scrutinize their activities more closely than ever,” he said.

“We will require LANL to correct each and every issue identified in this year’s report.”

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2015 8:45 pm | Updated: 9:05 pm, Thu Dec 24, 2015 at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/lanl-reports-more-safety-lapses-at-waste-sites/article_d0cd5f20-c168-5e7d-b4f4-a69a7299d9a7.html

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

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