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Los Alamos Blamed For Repository Fire

by Jeff Johnson
October 13, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 41

Credit: DOE
A shipment of transuranic waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
A shipment of contact-handled transuranic waste arrives at the Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
Credit: DOE
A shipment of transuranic waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Failure of Los Alamos National Laboratory operators to properly package waste may have caused a fire and radioactive release early this year at the nation’s only operating underground nuclear waste storage facility, concludes a recent report. The incident in February injured several workers and shut down the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a Carlsbad, N.M., repository for transuranic waste from DOE nuclear weapons facilities including the Los Alamos lab. The repository is not expected to reopen until 2016. In the report, DOE’s independent inspector general finds that incompatible or potentially incompatible materials—cellulose-based kitty litter sorbent and liquid acid neutralizers—were placed in drums with radioactive nitrate salt waste. This may have resulted in a chemical reaction that led to the fire, the report says, adding that the exact cause has not been determined. WIPP stores large volumes of transuranic waste consisting mostly of radioactive clothing, rags, tools, and other material, some of which is combustible. The shutdown will delay cleanups at many DOE facilities and will cost tens of millions of dollars, the report says.


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