State inspectors and Los Alamos National Laboratory officials may have known about an unlabeled hazardous waste container two days before the material ignited at the lab’s plutonium facility during a cleanup operation, causing a worker to suffer second-degree burns.
The small, but dangerous container was among a number of serious violations of the lab’s hazardous waste permit that state workers discovered during an April 17 inspection – problems that could cost the lab thousands of dollars in fines.
The lab failed to label the contents of various containers of potentially deadly waste, improperly left a waste container unsealed, failed to train a number of workers how to handle waste and did not maintain employee training records, according to a July 20 notice from the New Mexico Environment Department that was made public.
The timing of the inspection also raises questions about whether the lab or the state department could have prevented the small fire that injured a worker.
“Due to the nature of the violations listed above and LANL’s history of noncompliance with 20.4.1 NMAC [the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act], NMED will propose a civil penalty for these violations,” the state’s letter says, adding that the lab could incur fines of up to $10,000 per day for each violation that goes unremedied.
The violations are among a continuing stream of issues that have called into question the lab’s ability to operate safely. In recent months, the lab improperly labeled shipments of hazardous waste sent to Colorado and sent a drum of plutonium to laboratories in California and South Carolina by airplane rather than ground cargo, a violation of federal regulations that launched a U.S. Department of Energy investigation into the incident.
The problems also have called into question the lab’s ability to handle increasing quantities of plutonium to build the softball-sized atomic cores of nuclear weapons as part of a growing demand to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Allison Majure, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said, “Inspectors notify permittees of correctable issues at the time of inspection, as well as in written follow-up.”
While some of the permit violations were remedied on the day of the state’s inspection in April – such as correcting the label of a misidentified 30-gallon container of gasoline and sealing an open bottle of hydrofluoric acid, a poisonous corrosive – the unlabeled 500-gram container in the lab’s Plutonium Facility, PF-4, was not corrected until after the mistake led to an accident.
The fire broke out in the facility April 19, just feet from a box used to manipulate radioactive material. During a routine cleaning, a lab worker had emptied the canister into a waste bin, believing its contents to be graphite and innocuous. Instead, the material combusted, and the employee was burned. Emergency teams responded to the incident, and work halted at the facility temporarily.
The canister held lanthanum nickel hydride, a material that can be used to store radioactive elements.
The event “caused a release and required an emergency permit to treat the reactive waste,” the state’s letter says.
It says the lab failed to “minimize the possibility of a fire, explosion or any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste or hazardous waste constituents to air, soil or surface water which could threaten human health or the environment” – as was the case April 19.
The state also says the lab took more than twice the allocated time to submit an incident report following the fire – 36 days instead of 15.
Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the lab, said in an email, “Several corrective actions occurred at the time of the inspection, and the Laboratory will work with NMED to determine the extent of violation and appropriate corrective actions, if needed, for any unresolved findings.
“... One of the Laboratory’s highest priorities is to operate safely and securely and in full compliance with applicable federal and state regulations,” he added, “including the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act.”
Jay Coghlan, director of the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico, questioned why, if the state had discovered the problem with the container, it didn’t “deal with it immediately as an imminent danger that put workers and the public at risk.”
He said, “This shows a real lack of urgency and possibly a lack of knowledge.”
The state has cited the lab for hundreds of violations in recent years, many of which involve mislabeled waste, similar to those discovered April 17.
According to the state’s letter, inspectors found that two significantly hazardous waste containers were being handled as if they bore no hazard, including a fluid containing sodium azide, which is an “acutely toxic” chemical, the letter says, and a cylinder of flammable gas.
The lab failed to accurately label hazardous waste in a 5-quart Ziploc bag, the letter says, and inspectors found a “universal” waste container holding spent fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury and require special handling. There was no documentation of how long the materials had been accumulating.
Inspectors also found that workers were not being sufficiently trained. The lab did not conduct hazardous waste training for eight employees, the letter says, which is a permit violation, and it was not keeping training records.
“Employees at TA-72 were signing hazardous waste manifests and handling hazardous waste,” the letter says. “NMED inspectors observed incomplete training records for the employees at the Gun Range.”
Technical Area 72 serves as a live, outdoor firing range.
Majure said exactly how much the lab would be fined by the state for the violations will be determined as part of a confidential settlement that is now underway.
Contact Moss at (505) 986-3011 or email@example.com. This story was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.