ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An extensive review at one of the nation's premier federal laboratories has turned up violations in how the lab handled hundreds of containers of radioactive waste over the past decade.
The latest revelations are on top of the permit violations Los Alamos National Laboratory first reported last year in the wake of a radiation release at the federal government's underground nuclear waste dump in southern New Mexico.
That release was caused by a container that had been inappropriately packed at Los Alamos. The incident forced the indefinite closure of the repository, leaving in limbo the cleanup of decades' worth of plutonium-contaminated waste at defense sites around the country. The price tag for resuming operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is expected to top a half-billion dollars.
The lab reviewed more than 200 variations of the procedures that have been used between October 2005 and May 2014 to decontaminate about 10,000 containers of waste. The review found that some of the same procedural missteps made with the drum that leaked radiation were also made when handling more than 1,000 other containers.
But Lab Director Charlie McMillan and U.S. Department of Energy Los Alamos Field Office Manager Kimberly Davis Lebak said in a letter sent this week to the New Mexico Environment Department that the containers highlighted in the latest review were different than the drum that leaked radiation.
"Our staffs have completed a technical evaluation of these non-compliances and concluded that they do not present a credible safety concern to workers or the public and do not pose a threat to human health or the environment," they wrote.
Still, the lab's lack of compliance is a big concern for the state Environment Department, which oversees a permit that allows Los Alamos to handle hazardous waste. "The one thing I can say is we're going to continue to hold their feet to the fire on this," said Kathryn Roberts, director of the department's Resource Protection Division.
The corrective action Los Alamos is taking to address the problems related to the waste stream that resulted in the radiation leak will also cover the latest violations, Roberts said.
"It's going to address all those fundamental problems that stem from those procedures that were deficient in a lot of ways," she said. "Those are still going to be revised and we're going to have new processes in place and we're going to scrutinize those very, very closely."
The lab first notified the state of the latest violations during a meeting in July. The report released this week provides details.
Watchdog Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group pointed to the lab's history of noncompliance, saying outside observers would disagree that there are not safety or environmental concerns.
Mello said the report indicates some waste was illegally treated, some contained incompatible chemicals such as organic cat litter and some may have been mislabeled as safe to handle.
Among the containers are more than 630 stored at Los Alamos, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and another facility in west Texas in which mixed waste has been blended with concrete. The containers may include corrosive or ignitable materials, but officials say more tests need to be done on the contents.
The state recently settled with the federal government over the radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, but Mello said under the terms the state agreed not to enforce penalties against Los Alamos for compliance issues that are self-disclosed.
"This does not leave the state in a good place," he said, suggesting the contractor that runs the lab believes it is above the law.
Los Alamos lab "is too big and complicated for NMED (the New Mexico Environment Department) to regulate without a special enforcement squad," he said.