Steven Singledecker, LANL Waste Management Services group leader chats with Bette Korber who reported on the Fracking Reality Tour in the Chaco Canyon area at Monday’s Voices of Los Alamos meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory has undergone a radical shift in the way they have dealt with waste management, Steven Singledecker, Waste Management Services group leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory told Voices of Los Alamos Monday evening at their monthly meeting.
“For the first 60 years of the facility their idea of managing radioactive and hazardous waste was to dig a trench on the mesa, put the waste on the mesa, cover it up, put a building over it and forget about,” he said.
Singledecker said in the 40s the activity was World War II and “they weren’t really thinking about the long-term consequences of waste on a mesa like this”. He said Los Alamos grew up around the Laboratory which was not a temporary facility.
“It ended up being a Cold War support facility and now we’re past the Cold War and the basic science is stockpile stewardship. When they initially chose this site they didn’t think we were going to be here for 75 years and they really didn’t understand when they put the waste in the ground, what the geodynamics of that waste was going to be with the water getting into the disposal cells, coming down through the mesas, getting into the water taking it to the Rio Grande and taking it down to Southern New Mexico. They weren’t thinking about that. They were thinking how do we build a bomb and end World War II. So we’ve undergone a major shift in how we manage, transport and dispose of low-level radioactive material,” Singledecker said.
For more than 60 years, waste was disposed of in onsite disposal areas.
“Transportation costs were very cheap – you would drive it a few miles down the road and put it in a disposal site. Transportation and compliance issues were easily managed, it was all in the family so to speak. If there was a characterization issue, a leaky container, if the paperwork wasn’t right, you called up your peer in another group and said, “I need to fix this, can we fix this?” So the accountability was very low, however in FY 2010, one of the reasons why I was brought in from outside Los Alamos was to bring a culture different from that of Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL committed to shifting all radioactive disposal to offsite treatment, storage and disposal facilities (TSDF),” he said.
Singledecker said the Laboratory was still disposing onsite with radioactive materials specifically when he came to Los Alamos in 2010.
“I was amazed. I was like, ‘You guys have your own disposal facility on a mesa, that’s situated in the middle of a town that has a major river right down the road. That is incredible. What kind of liner technology do you have? How do you guys control this? This is amazing,’” he said. “They said, ‘Well we have pit and it’s in dirt and underneath the dirt is broken up rock and we’re a couple of hundred feet above the groundwater, so think we’re okay’. I’m like, ‘Oh wow! Now I understand what LANL decided to go offsite’. I said this is not an ideal disposal method right here, so let’s pick it up and move it to offsite disposal facilities that are designed to handle this type of waste, protect the environment, protect the facility, be good stewards of the environment and be good neighbors,” he said.
Singledecker said his job as a group leader was to take all the waste stream that was still being disposed of onsite and shift that to offsite facilities. At that time, he said LANL’s ability to dispose on site, allowed them to generate waste – radioactive waste specifically – that could only be disposed of LANL.
“That meant no other facility in the United States was designed to handle our radioactive waste. That was okay, we had a disposal cell down the road. Without this onsite handling capability, LANL would have been generating a no path forward waste stream which means there was nowhere in the United States that we could ship our waste to offsite,” he said.
Singledecker said three things changed before he got here that forced LANL to redirect all of its waste to offsite TSDFs. He said the first was the closure of TA-54 and Area where contractor N3B is responsible for clearing up all of the waste. He said implementation of the LANL RCRA permit that happened in the early 90s was the second thing -when the Department of Energy was told they were had to follow federal regulations with no more chemical or hazardous waste disposal onsite.
“The third was the implementation of the site treatment plan with the New Mexico Environment Department which says that all the waste for which we didn’t have a path forward offsite, we would do everything we could to develop a plan to get it offsite. We gave them an inventory of all this waste. We gave them a schedule of when we were going to ship this waste offsite,” he said.
He said Waste Management’s goal was to establish cradle and grave waste management plans from the point of generation to wherever the waste ended up.
“We had to develop a system to manage it safely, compliantly and efficiently. To do this we had to design a system from ground zero that was compliant and cost effective, that was modeled and relied on clear roles and responsibilities,” Singledecker said.
He said nobody at the front end had really understood what they were supposed to do and that they had to be trained that to know they were generators in the legal framework of waste management.
“We had to produce accurate waste characterization. One of the root causes of the (Waste Isolation Pilot Project incident) was that the characterization was inaccurate. They had guys on the floor putting waste in these drums and putting two incompatible items in there. When they reacted, the drums slowly built up pressure and detonated at the WIPP facility because they didn’t keep track of what they were putting in that drum,” Singledecker said. “We had to train our generators and we had to develop a quality assurance program.”
The people who own the umbrella of quality assurance in waste management were brought in to train waste generators on an array of new packaging, inventory requirements, characterization requirements and what’s called waste acceptance criteria because the facilities that accept LANL waste across the United States have a list of guidelines that the waste has to meet it can be disposed of there, he said.
“We had to train our waste management coordinators. This is the crew that does the physical waste management for the scientists and the engineers and the people out in the field. We had to train them on the new requirements for transportation because now we’re bound by the Department of Transportation regulations and offsite disposal requirements. And we had to train our shipping organization on the multiple waste acceptance criteria to get everyone to understand the requirements of shipping waste from Los Alamos across the entire United States,” Singledecker said.
He said Waste Management looked at other sites to see what they could at least mimic instead of trying to create their own stuff at ground zero and in 2011 they were ready to roll out their pilot programs. He said the plutonium production program at TA-55 was one of the biggest generators onsite and that Project Management which does all the site demolition and decontamination was second. There was also waste from the Science and Technology Office which is representative of the scientists at LANL, he said.
“In addition to the shipping offsite disposal strategy, we had to improve the waste planning at the front end so waste minimization, pollution prevention. Everybody’s talking about it now but 10 years ago, we were talking about it but we weren’t thinking about carbon dioxide emissions, we weren’t thinking about global warming. What we were really thinking about then of course was not impacting the environment and saving money. So that’s what the Lab wants to do – be a good neighbor, be a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” Singledecker said. “So to do that we had to get to the front end where our generators were just generating waste, only cared about the science, only cared about the engineering, only cared about the stockpile stewardship. When they were done with their projects and their science they took their waste over here in the corner and they’d say someone else will take care of that later.”
Singledecker said Waste Management wanted to help minimize the amount of waste being generated and improve the waste characterization data quality so that they knew what was in the drums they were being given.
“We help every single program we touch to find a better way to package their waste. And the generators are very happy to do that. They want to do science, They don’t want to do waste management so we said we’ll do waste management for you. We’ll come up to what we call the front end and we will help you manage every aspect of your waste management so we can save you money, put it in the proper container, protect the environment, and protect the employees,” he said.
So where is LANL today with waste management?
Singledecker said LANL Waste Management Program is now controlled by one Associate Laboratory Directorate. He said each of the Facility Operations now work under one ALD waste management program. LANL now has one master waste tracking and data management software program called WCATS and 100 percent of all waste is disposed of offsite at TSDFs.
“At the end of FY2019, the LANL Enduring Waste Management Program has now become outwardly focused and centralized and has vastly improve its operational efficiency,” he said.