Current-Argus Staff Writer
CARLSBAD — Another drum of transuranic nuclear waste will be removed from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and returned to sender.
The drum, which contained a prohibited amount of liquid, will be removed from its underground location at WIPP and sent back to Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"The administrative record is not clean on this drum," said Dave Moody, the Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office Manager. "There is more liquid than is allowed by the permit for that container."
The drum was identified to have an excess amount of liquid during the characterization process in Los Alamos.
"When we find conditions that are in excess of permit conditions, we issue a non-conformance report on that container," Moody said.
The drum was tagged, both physically and electronically, as not conforming to the standards required for shipment to WIPP. But it was mistakenly placed in a standard waste box with three other drums for shipment to Carlsbad. Waste drums are sometimes placed together in "overpack" containers to prepare for shipment. An investigation into how the error occurred is ongoing.
The overpack container was shipped from Los Alamos and arrived in Carlsbad on May 21. The waste was disposed underground on May 28.
Moody said the issue was discovered by WIPP employees in Carlsbad Thursday afternoon.
"As employees normally go through and try to resolve these nonconformance reports on drums, this drum still had an open NCR (non-compliance report) and was disposed in the repository," he said.
Moody said the percentage of liquid in the entire overpack container met all permit requirements.
"We don't believe we have a permit violation issue, because of the fact that the liquid in the overall waste container does not exceed permit requirements," Moody said. "But rather than splitting hairs, we decided to remove it."
Shipments to WIPP have come to a halt. The container in question is nine rows back.
"We had some shipments en route and we allowed those to proceed to WIPP," said Casey Gadbury, National TRU Program director. "But we've suspended shipments to the site."
Shipments of transuranic waste to WIPP had resumed on May 7 after a two-week hiatus caused by a water line leak outside the waste handling building.
Moody noted that the incident was different from an incident last year, in which the wrong drum was sent from Idaho Falls to WIPP. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry ultimately ordered the drum's removal and return to Idaho.
"This drum had undergone characterization, but it had not passed all the requirements," Moody said of the present circumstance. "This was the right drum, but unfortunately all the characterization activities were not closed out on this."
The drum will be returned to Los Alamos, Moody said, where liquid will be absorbed before the contents are returned to WIPP.
Last year's errant drum resulted in a $110,700 settlement with the NMED. The Department of Energy also had to remove the drum from 36 rows back, resulting in expenses of more than a million dollars, officials said.
The good news is that DOE now has experience removing contents from WIPP.
"All the mockups and training, as well as the decisions on where to position the waste as you move it out of the way, that will all be considered as we put together a retrieval plan," Moody said.
Moody said the DOE will conduct an extensive root cause analysis to make sure the recent issue isn't repeated in the future.
"We're committed to complying to all aspects of the permit," he said.
Environmentalist Don Hancock chastised Los Alamos for attempting to work too quickly to bring waste to WIPP.
"The source of the problem, in my view, is Los Alamos' incompetence on one hand and their hurry on the other," he said. "It sounds like there is no way this should have ever come to WIPP."
Hancock, with Albuquerque's Southwest Research and Information Center, also said he didn't understand why the error was not caught during a conformation process at Los Alamos.
"After the mistake in Idaho, things were done to make sure it didn't happen again," he said, noting that changes made in Idaho should have been made at other sites such as doing more to physically separate complaint and non-complaint drums.
"The good news is that (the DOE) is going in to get the waste out this time instead of waiting for an order to remove it," he said. "At least they've learned that lesson."
Hancock said he didn't feel the DOE's arguments that the percentage of liquid in the overpack container met all permit requirements would have been valid. For one thing, he noted, the permit requires removing as much liquid as possible from any container.
Curry said he found the report of improper handling at LANL and disposal at WIPP to be "very troubling."
"WIPP's state-issued permit includes strong disposal prohibitions on liquids to ensure that the repository will continue to operate properly and protect the health of New Mexicans long into the future," he said in a prepared statement. "I am pleased that WIPP plans to remove this drum voluntarily. NMED will conduct a full and thorough investigation of this incident including the potential of future enforcement actions."