SANTA FE (AP) – The head of Los Alamos National Laboratory is denouncing a published report that exposed missteps at the lab that played a part in a radiation leak at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository.
Lab director Charlie McMillian sent a memo to employees earlier this week, dismissing suggestions that the lab was withholding scientific theories about the Feb. 14 accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“I want to assure you that nothing is further from the truth,” he said in the memo, obtained by The Santa Fe New Mexican.
McMillian was taking aim at the newspaper’s initial report, which was based on interviews and thousands of documents and emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Some of the emails that were uncovered expressed outrage from WIPP officials about what they weren’t told by Los Alamos lab.
The report also addressed efforts to downplay the dangers of waste from Los Alamos that had been sent to WIPP.
Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, read the emails and voiced concern that the lab wasn’t as forthcoming with WIPP or the Energy Department as McMillian’s memo suggested.
“LANL openness standards are so opaque that secrecy is normal,” Mello said.
It was a canister of waste from Los Alamos that leaked in one of WIPP’s storage rooms in February, contaminating 22 workers and forcing the indefinite closure of the nuclear waste repository.
Cleaning up the waste repository and resuming full operations could take years, and the cost has been estimated at more than $500 million.
A report released last month by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Energy squarely placed blame for the WIPP shutdown on failures at Los Alamos lab.
The inspector general’s review found weaknesses in the lab’s procedures for packing contaminated gloves, tools and other radiological wastes that were destined for permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. It also found that not all of the lab’s procedures were properly vetted and some procedures didn’t conform with environmental requirements.
According to documents provided by the lab to WIPP officials and regulators, some details about the canister’s contents were not immediately shared, including the unusually high acidity of the waste and that organic cat litter and a pH neutralizer were part of the mix. Now, those components are being investigated as possible factors in the chemical reaction that caused the canister to burst.
The Department of Energy is expected to release a final report on what caused the leak before the end of the year.