Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Journal Staff Report

Los Alamos National Laboratory can’t account for 38 containers of radioactive waste materials after completion of a four-month inventory conducted at its Area G nuclear dump site.

Lab officials believe the discrepancies are most likely due to records-keeping errors.
“Obviously we’re very concerned because this does indicate we do have some historic inventory issues,” LANL spokesman James Rickman said.

But he said LANL officials don’t believe the waste was “inappropriately handled” or left the controlled-access site improperly.

The drums of material that can’t be accounted for are among 20,000 containers of similar “transuranic waste”- waste items such as protective gear or tools contaminated with plutonium and other similar radioactive substances as a result of nuclear research, testing and production- at Area G.

The drums that can’t be found represent “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the transuranic radioactive material at Area G,” Rickman said. He said none of the unaccounted-for containers held “high activity” or more radioactive materials.

The inventory discrepancy was disclosed in a May 4 memorandum prepared for the Defense Nuclear Safety Board.

Greg Mello of the anti-nuclear Los Alamos Study Group said in a written statement the amount of radioactive material listed as unaccounted for in the memo would be “enough for an advanced nuclear weapon.”

Rickman said that Mello’s comment “makes for a very provocative scare tactic” but doesn’t reflect the form of the waste in the drums. He said the approximately six pounds of material not accounted for is “in 38 drums in a form that is not going to be usable in a bomb.”

He said the waste is found on gloves, sludge from chemical processes or even on paper.
“It’s garbage,” Rickman said. “It’s not refined plutonium or weapons-grade stuff.”

Mello said the bigger issue is that LANL “has thousands of drums of plutonium-contaminated waste that is going nowhere fast, and they’re making more of it and they have big waste-handling problems.”

Rickman said some inventory problems with the transuranic waste were first discovered in December, leading to a “wall-to-wall” inventory of Area G in which the 38 containers couldn’t be accounted for.

The material in the above-ground drums at Area G is destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

Rickman said investigators believe the containers were re-packed into newer containers or larger “overpack” containers without the changes being properly recorded, or that technicians transposed numbers or otherwise entered incorrect information into inventory records. Some of the waste at LANL is repackaged for transport to WIPP.

Rickman said new inventory controls, including requiring “two-person validation” of any information entered into the data base, have been implemented as a result of the recent findings.
LANL is working to close Area G by 2015 under a cleanup agreement with the state Environment Department.