The US Department of Energy will not be able to meet a June-30 deadline for removing thousands of drums of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where atomic bombs have been built for decades.
In a statement released on Friday, the department said it had notified the New Mexico Environment Department that the waste cannot be transported until officials are certain it poses no threat to public health.
“As we work to assess the conditions of the transuranic waste program at the (Los Alamos) lab, we have decided to halt further shipments until we can reassure the public that it is safe to do so,” Reuters cites David Klaus, an Energy Department secretary for management and performance, as saying in a statement.
Officials in New Mexico had asked federal officials to remove 3,706 cubic meters of waste from the Los Alamos complex, fearing wildfires could come in contact with the materials.
The bulk of that material has been removed, and the department had initially agreed to move the rest by the end of June.
Those shipments have been put on hold, however, after a canister shipped from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project was linked to a radiation release in February at the underground repository in southeastern New Mexico. Officials are investigating whether hundreds of other drums at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) at Los Alamos and a West Texas site are at risk.
Following the February-14 radiation leak, managers at WIPP, the country’s primary permanent storage facility for waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing, said the plant could be closed for up to three years. In the event this happens, the United States would be lacking a facility to send certain types of nuclear waste materials.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, the chemical reaction which sparked the leak may have been caused by allowing incompatible materials to be mixed.
Reportedly, laboratory personnel allowed a contractor to begin packing the barrels with two substances widely known to cause heat reactions when combined with nitrate salts in the waste, according to Los Alamos’ emails made available by New Mexico environment officials.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said one of those substances was most likely cat litter. Other materials, including nitrate salts, were also approved to be packed in the barrels. While cat litter made from specific inorganic minerals has long been used to absorb and stabilize certain chemicals, a new “green” cat litter, made with materials like wheat or corn, was likely used instead. The litter, incidentally, did not have the chemical properties to stabilize nitrate in the right way.
Nitrates and organic matter are known to oxidize, a reaction that generates heat.
Flynn said the cat litter theory remains the most viable, although it was his department’s goal to ascertain and comprehend what happened, and whether regulations had been properly followed.
“It doesn’t really matter who is to blame,” he said. “They all work for DOE (Department of Energy).”