Technical Issues Plague DOE Virtual Public Information Meeting On Tritium Venting Project Attended By 150


Attendees of a virtual public information session on the proposed venting of four Flanged Tritium Waste Containers at Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted by the Department of Energy National Security Administration are waiting details of a second meeting on the project to be announced after Tuesday night’s Webex session was plagued by technical issues.

DOE had hoped to convince  the community that it has developed a “safe, proven and reliable process” for venting the tritium, but ended up apologizing at length as feedback sound feedback made it almost impossible at times to hear speakers and many complained that they could not see the technical slide presentation. Calling the situation embarrassing, frustrating and disappointing, multiple participants asked for another meeting which DOE/NNSA’s Pete Maggiore eventually said will be held Tuesday, Oct. 27.

While many had expected to hear their questions answered during the meeting, Maggiore announced at the outset that questions would be answered online at a later time. (  

“We heard your message loud and clear that this type of information session was appropriate and so we’re delighted to be here and to visit with you this evening,” Maggiore said. Some 150 people participated in the meeting.

He noted that DOE was mindful that the tritium venting issue was controversial and wanted to assure the public that the safety of people and the environment is DOE’s top priority.

Maggiore introduced Brian Watkins of LANL, a logistics division leader who is leading the venting project.

Watkins described a FTWC as a roughly 51-gallon pressure certified vessel with a flanged opening secured with a gasket and 16 bolts, designed for long-term tritium waste storage. Four or five smaller containers are held within the FTWC, and the FTWC is within a stainless steel handling drum.   He said there are four FTWCs at Area G that need permanent offsite disposal and that preparing the containers for shipment is part of the larger reduce waste risk at Area G.  In order for the containers to be shipped, they have to meet Department of Transportation regulations, DOE radiological safety, EPA requirements and offsite disposal location requirements so the gas in the headspace of the larger containers has to be vented, Watkins said.

Watkins said quite a few options were considered in consultation  with regulators throughout the process to develop the path forward for the containers that would be safest for both the workers, the public and the environment.

“Any kind of movement or other nearby activities that might damage the container without venting first poses the risk of essentially an unplanned or unmeasured release or damage of the container, so that’s primarily why they need to be placed in a safe configuration first but also why it would not be prudent to do a lot of construction or activities in or around or over these containers,” he said.

The second issue is that leaving the containers in place would not make progress towards site risk reduction priorities, Watkins said.

“Why not let the tritium decay, why not wait? To get to very low levels we’d be talking many, many years and again it doesn’t support the overall priorities for risk reduction as well as the Area G closure commitment,” he said.

Venting and capture systems to be used for the project are proven and specifically engineered for this application to minimize the release and protect the workers, the public and the environment and keep it inside the Tritium Facility, Watkins said.

“Only the activities necessary for safe handling are being performed in Area G and then all the other activities related to repackaging and offsite shipment will be performed in LANL’s Tritium Facility where there’s a better infrastructure for doing this kind of work,” he said.

He noted that the FTWCs will be vented one per day and that any headspace gas will pass through a capture system with any gas not captured measured at the source. The bulk of the tritium is in the inner containers which are not going to be vented, he said. Once the containers have been verified safe for handling, a pressure monitoring manifold will be installed to ensure continuous safe configuration.  The process requires a temporary authorization by the New Mexico Environment and a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Two DOE readiness reviews have been completed and a third is in review, Watkins said.

“For emissions monitoring, the administrative limit for the operation is 8 mrem. The annual site emissions limit for any tritium material release is 10 mrem to the maximally exposed individual. What that means is calculating the nearest populated edge of LANL property closest to this operation and it conservatively assumes 100 percent occupancy and exposure,” Watkins said. “Those are all very conservative – assuming worst case wind modeling measures – to protect that hypothetical person at that nearest location. By protecting that location or that maximally exposed individual, that ensures that all other residents in New Mexico are also protected.”

He said although 8 rem is the administrative limit for the project, that may not be the actual limit.

“The goal is to make those emissions as low as possible. For context we all receive about 400 mrem in New Mexico from natural sources so this is a relatively small amount,” Watkins said.

Monitoring systems for the project will include two real-time tritium monitors and a stack bubbler which is the EPA’s system of record at the actual operation with four additional bubblers installed at internet stations around Area G specifically and then all the other internet systems in the area have tritium collectors installed, Watkins said.

“That sequence of operations for performing one container per day – at any point in that operation if anything unexpected is encountered, that could be paused and placed in a safe configuration. That process will be continuously monitored each day until all four containers are safe. Stack emissions and dose calculations will be subtracted from the overall limit each day and so actual measurements will be taken if anything is released. That limit is reduced from the overall limit of 8 mrem and then that becomes the new limit for the next day’s operation,” he said.

Among those who spoke voiced concerns about the venting project were Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. Coghlan said he personally suspected the process outlined by DOE was chosen because “it’s the cheapest way to do it”. He said the presentation ignores the elephant in the room which he said is the potential release of up to 100,000 curies and the associated unknown public health effects. Coghlan said the public and NMED have not been given any rigorous analysis of alternatives for the process and he called on NMED not to issue authorization until there is a health risk analysis of the alternatives.

Arends said given the technical difficulties there should be two or three more meetings with one devoted to the health effects issue and the other to an actual demonstration of what’s being proposed step-by-step using the LANL standard operating procedures.

Beata Tsosie Pena of Santa Clara Pueblo and Tewa Women United said she objects to releases in her ancestral homelands and expressed concern about continual desecration of Area G. She objected to the exposure of pregnant indigenous women to more than .5 mrem of tritium saying that it affects three generations of relatives in one pregnancy. She said 8 mrem is not safe for indigenous people and people who live off the land.

Although DOE has indicated to NMED in recent correspondence that there has been public outreach on the project, according to NMED no documentation has been received on the extent of that outreach. Los Alamos County councilors have been briefed by DOE but not in public.