.News Update 09/05/08

Additional Questions about RH Waste Drums at LANL

September 5, 2008

For the past 16 months, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has been working to provide the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) with the necessary detailed information in order to ship 16 remote-handled waste drums to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Remote-handled, or RH, waste emits gamma rays, which are able to penetrate metal, such as the drums. It is too dangerous for workers to come into direct contact with, so they must use remote operators to handle the disposal containers.

Special transportation containers have been built for shipping RH waste. The waste is buried in a salt formation 2,150 feet below the surface of the Earth. RH waste is placed into the walls underground to provide shielding for workers.

The LANL RH waste was generated between 1986 and 1991 by the development of nuclear weapons. The waste was placed into drums and then into larger containers. About 15 years ago, the containers were put into shafts dug into the volcanic tuff at Technical Area 54, which is the largest waste dump at LANL. The 16 containers are less than 15 percent of the entire inventory of RH waste at LANL.

The detailed information is required under the WIPP hazardous waste operating permit issued by NMED. It is an alternative to physically examining the contents of the drums. Physical examination is the normal practice to ensure that no prohibited items are shipped to WIPP. The detailed information is called an "acceptable knowledge sufficiency determination" (AKSD) and is a one-time approach. If the AKSD is not approved by NMED, then LANL must physically examine the drums.

LANL would prefer to obtain approval for the drums based on the acceptable knowledge, as it is a less expensive process and, in this case, would not require opening the containers.

LANL was supposed to be the first Department of Energy (DOE) site to ship RH waste to WIPP, starting in early 2007. WIPP has received RH waste from the national laboratories in Idaho and Illinois, all of which used the normal physical examination procedures. The Illinois site has sent three shipments, while the Idaho site has shipped more than 160 shipments.

Recently, NMED sent a 31-page Notice of Deficiency to DOE detailing the inadequacies of the AKSD submission. LANL must provide the large amounts of missing information for NMED to approve or proceed with physical examination of the waste.

New Mexico State Representative John Heaton, whose district includes WIPP, weighed in about the negotiations. He said, "[NMED] said they were trying to do an all-exhaustive list to make sure there's nothing left. If they don't get it right on the first request and some other items pop up, the acceptable knowledge determination could be denied."

Activists are carefully monitoring the first time the AKSD process has been used by DOE. Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, said, "LANL would have saved time and money by proceeding with normal physical examination more than a year ago, since they may have to do so in any case."

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