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September 30, 2014

Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory – Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department's Waste Isolation Plant

 The Department of Energy's (Department) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is one of the Nation's premier national security laboratories. Los Alamos National Security, LLC manages and operates LANL.  As part of its mission, LANL generated a large volume of transuranic (TRU) waste consisting mostly of radioactively contaminated clothing, tools, rags, debris and soil.  In January 2012, a framework agreement was established between the Department and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to ship 3,706 cubic meters of combustible and dispersible TRU waste from LANL to the Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for permanent disposal by June 30, 2014.  The Department established the Central Characterization Project to characterize and certify waste to help ensure that it met WIPP's waste acceptance criteria.

On February 14, 2014, a radiological release from one TRU waste drum was detected in the underground repository at WIPP.  As a consequence, underground operations at WIPP were suspended and the Nation's only operating deep geologic repository for the permanent disposal of defense-related TRU waste was shut down for an indefinite period.  The impact of the shutdown, both incurred to date and in the future is valued in terms of tens of millions of dollars.   We initiated a special inquiry to determine whether LANL appropriately managed the remediation and repackaging of waste shipped to WIPP.

Our review identified several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed to the radiological event.  Of particular concern, not all waste management procedures at LANL were properly vetted through the established procedure revision process nor did they conform to established environmental requirements.  In our view, immediate action is necessary to ensure that these matters are addressed and fully resolved before TRU waste operations are resumed, or, for that matter, before future mixed radioactive hazardous waste operations are initiated.  Management concurred with the report's findings and recommendations and stated that the results of our investigation are generally consistent with findings from internal investigations.

Topic: Nuclear Security & Safety