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Powerful explosive accidentally detonates at LANL

September 25, 2018

An explosion in a densely staffed sector of Los Alamos National Laboratory on Sept. 14 left one employee with multiple cuts and prompted lab officials to request emergency approval from the New Mexico Environment Department to safely detonate two compromised vessels containing highly explosive hazardous waste.

Both of the approximately 1.7-ounce containers were “unstable due to heat exposure and the presence of etching on the vessel exterior,” an incident report said.

“This condition posed an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment,” the report reads.

No radioactive material was involved in the incident, a lab spokesman said.

The detonation occurred during synthesis of a type of powerful non-nuclear explosive in development at LANL.

The injured worker, who sustained cuts to his or her hands caused by broken glassware, was treated at both Los Alamos Medical Center and University of New Mexico Hospital, the spokesman said. The employee has since been released and is back at work.

The cause of the explosion is under review.

The blast detonated some time before 11:30 a.m., in Technical Area 35, Building 85. The area flanks Pecos Road on the southeast side of Los Alamos.

“It’s a very highly populated part of the lab,” said Greg Mello, director of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog agency that tracks safety issues at the laboratory.

By midday, John Kieling, chief of state’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, had authorized detonation of the unstable chemicals in a contained vessel.

Destruction of the chemicals went off without a hitch at 1:15 p.m., according to the report.

Mello said developing stronger explosives has been a LANL aim for decades.

This is the latest in a series of safety mishaps at the labs. In May, a crew of pipe fitters underwent decontamination after radioactive materials were discovered on a worker’s hands, on the crew’s protective clothing and in the work area. In March, all work with special nuclear materials was put on hold at the lab’s plutonium facility following violations of two safety mandates meant to prevent a nuclear chain reaction.

According to the follow-up report detailing the Sept. 14 incident, the pair of unstable containers were discovered during an assessment of the chemical hood (a kind of secure, vented workspace) in which the explosion took place.

The lab spokesman declined to say whether the vessels were actually in the hood at the time of the explosion, but Richard Holder, a retired UNM organic chemistry professor who specializes in chemical syntheses and reactions, said it’s not uncommon for chemists to keep other compounds in their workspace.

It’s not best practices to do so, he said. “I don’t condone it, but it’s common and I’ve done it myself,” Holder said.

Having other compounds in the space poses hazards in the event or a fire, during which intense heat could set off additional chemical reactions.

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