Self-reported violations at LANL increase three-fold in a year

December 4, 2018

An 85-gallon drum of radioactive waste leaked into its secondary container. Nearly two dozen waste containers were either mislabeled or not labeled at all. Officials failed to conduct mandated hazardous waste inspections.

During Los Alamos National Laboratory’s most recent fiscal year, officials logged 69 instances of noncompliance with the federal permit that allows the facility to store, manage and treat hazardous waste, according to a newly released annual report that details the violations.

The transgressions, all of which are described in the report as nonthreatening to human health and the environment, amount to a nearly threefold increase over the previous year when lab officials self-reported 25 incidents.

“While our program has shown considerable improvement in recent years, we continue to strive to meet the letter and spirit of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act,” a laboratory spokesman said Monday in an emailed statement, referring to the 1976 law that governs the management of hazardous waste. “These efforts will continue.”

The spokesman noted that in most cases steps were taken to correct violations as soon as they were discovered.

LANL officials are required to report such instances of noncompliance to the New Mexico Environment Department each year. This year’s list of violations also includes descriptions of waste stored beyond a one-year limit, a slew of missed public reporting deadlines and faulty fire alarms.

But by far the most frequent violations over the period from Oct. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018 involved mislabeled or unlabeled waste containers — errors that in the past have had dangerous consequences.

In April 2017, an unlabeled container caused a fire in an on-site plutonium facility. Then, in June of that year, the National Nuclear Security Administration began an investigation after LANL shipped mislabeled weapons-grade plutonium out of state by air, in violation of federal law. NNSA officials called the error “absolutely unacceptable.”

In the aftermath of those incidents, LANL officials vowed to overhaul policies and remedy the perennial problem, but this past year, the lab logged 22 incidents of unlabeled or mislabeled containers, according to the report.

“There’s a constant stream of mischaracterized waste at LANL,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based watchdog organization. “… It speaks to a management culture which is not on top of its environmental game.”

The LANL spokesman declined to comment on continued waste-labeling issues.

The violations come at a time of transition for the lab. Of the 69 instances detailed in the report, 46 were catalogued by Los Alamos National Security LLC, the lab’s previous managers, who in November ceded control of the $2.7 billion annual operation to Triad National Security LLC.

The remaining 23 violations came under the oversight of Newport News Nuclear BWXT-Los Alamos LLC, colloquially known as N3B, a Virginia-based consortium that in December 2017 won a $1.4 billion contract to ship radioactive waste, monitor contaminated waters and clean up soiled lands at LANL. The group took over those responsibilities in April.

In their half of the annual report, N3B officials described their first five months on the job as a time of transition in which they specifically sought out existing compliance issues and started forming remedies for common problems.

“N3B is developing new waste management policies and procedures to ensure operations are compliant with the permit,” the report states.

An N3B spokesman declined immediate comment about the report.

Annual reports since 2011 show an erratic trend. In 2012, LANL logged just 12 instances of noncompliance. That number jumped to 421 in 2015, the year after a burst drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico sparked a costly explosion and refocused attention on compliance at a facility long known for safety issues.

“No modern high-tech facility in the private sector could ever be managed like this,” Mello said. “The boards of companies … would never stand for this.”

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