N3B Vice President Joe Legare, right, chats with Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz at a pre-COVID meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Since October 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, N3B, the legacy waste cleanup contractor at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has already doubled the number of waste shipments made in 12 months last fiscal year with 13 shipments already gone off the hill compared to 5 in FY2020.
The Los Alamos Reporter chatted with N3B vice president Joe Legare about the pace the company has maintained this year in spite of the impact COVID-19 has had on activities at LANL.
Legare noted that through partnership with Triad National Security, LLC, the Lab’s prime contractor, N3B has been able to use the Radioactive Assay Non-destructive Testing Facility (RANT) for indoor loading which means that the shipping of contact-handled transuranic waste (CH-TRU) can continue even in winter.
“We anticipate meeting or exceeding all our shipping goals, which is remarkable with all the safety provisions we had to put in place due to COVID to keep employees and their families safe. Not only are we shipping but we have on the order of 25 additional shipments ready to go,” he said.
This is all waste that has been through the remediation and certification process. A total of 553 containers holding 66 cubic meters of TRU waste were remediated and repackaged during the year ending September 30 for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad or reclassified and sent to Permafix Northwest in Richland, Wash. With WIPP reducing the number of shipments it would accept during the COVID crisis, there is a backlog of shipments
Although it doesn’t always get as much attention as transuranic waste, N3B is planning 20 shipments of mixed low-level waste (MLLW) this fiscal year. Last fiscal year some 343 cubic meters of MLLW was shipped to Energy Solutions in Clive, Utah.
“We fully understand the risk the waste represents. There is nothing more important than getting it off the hill,” Legare said.
N3B also is developing the engineering design of a facility to process 158 corrugated metal pipes (CMPs) filled with cemented wastewater treatment sludge which were buried in the 1970s at Area G. A shearer from a company in Louisiana is being modified, Legare said and will be installed at Area G this fiscal year.
“We will be using the shearer to cut up the CMPs when we retrieve them. The pipes are about 20 feet long and 30 inches in diameter. They each weigh about 14,000 pounds,” Legare said.
He noted that the original thinking was to use a diamond band saw but that would generate a lot of dust. The new machine will enable N3B to cut the CMPs into five sections and when they are appropriately sized, they will be processed and certified for shipment to WIPP.
“That also will feed the pipeline to continue to prepare the waste so that we can get it offsite. Again, N3B is really excelling at getting waste off the hill which is an absolute priority,” Legare said.
A readiness evaluation for additional ways to process waste in Dome 231 at Area G was conducted in recent weeks with enhanced COVID protocols for people that came in to perform the review.
“Using the new process, N3B waste operators will place the drums in two glovebag process lines where they will drain any liquids, use a reagent to bring the pH level to an acceptable level if necessary and add a solvent to turn the liquid into a solid so that it can be repackaged for disposal at WIPP,” Legare said. “There’s a lot of activity going on at Area G. I could not be more proud of the group and they’re and they’re touching on every aspect of generating, certifying, remediating, shipping, coordinating with Triad and really doing everything we can to reduce the risk.”
N3B really hit a milestone on the environmental remediation side of the contract in FY2020 when they completed one of the 17 cleanup campaigns in the Consent Order between the Department of Energy and the state of New Mexico. The campaign involved four sites in Upper Mortandad, Upper Canada del Buey and Threemile canyons. (See https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/12/16/n3b-completes-first-campaign-under-2016-consent-order-to-clean-up-lanl-legacy-waste/)
Legare said over the next 30 months N3B will have completed or substantially completed the field work for the remedy proposal on three more campaigns.
“During FY2020, our folks really leaned in to ensure we completed the Consent Order milestones. We completed all of them and did as much as we could as we were initially tele-working back in the spring. Our folks worked hard to re-plan their work, to accelerate schedules and to reduce timelines for getting subcontractors into the field so that we had no excuses,” Legare said. “We were doing to everything we could to meet every milestone despite missing some pretty significant field time. We were planning to be out there in spring and summer but it ended up being summer and late summer and it required tremendous coordination and focus but we were able to achieve that.”
He said another area where N3B was able to continue to execute work safely and efficiently after the initial stop work order from DOE was with groundwater and storm water sampling.
“There was a period where we were not in the field. The regulators agreed with that, but we continued to execute. It may not sound that profound or exciting but it was a tremendous effort to coordinate under the COVID controls. We had to think about how to hold a tailgate meeting or a plan of the day safely with physical separation. Also using trucks – how many people could you have in a vehicle. We addressed every aspect of safety of work,” Legare said.
In some cases, he said, typically there would have been a few people huddled around a well but N3B had to refine the procedures and how they did work. It is one of those things that largely goes unnoticed but executing the water compliance program was quite an accomplishment, Legare said. N3B collected water samples at some 153 locations at LANL during FY2020.
“Protecting the aquifer is the other big issue for us and there is no room not to be successful there. Taking these ground water samples on time and ensuring water quality is critical to our success and protecting the aquifer. Our team really distinguished themselves – hitting all the marks and pulling all the samples,” Legare said.
N3B also took on new work when DOE tasked them with digging a trench for the developer of an apartment complex next to the Middle DP Road site where radiological contamination was discovered last spring. A contractor was going to dig the trench for the developer, Legare said, but because of the uncertainties initially associated with the subsurface, N3B was asked to do the digging.
“We did not find any contamination in the trench and were able to turn it back over to the developer. The second step was to go into the same parcel and dig 16 potholes with a backhoe to provide for additional investigation in that area and that has been completed. We found no radiological contamination so that was good,” he said.
N3B is working on a screening plan for the adjacent area in which the initial contamination was found with DOE Environmental Management for submittal to the New Mexico Environment Department . That plan will be executed in 2020.
At the far end of DP Road in TA-21, Legare said N3B was fully mobilized earlier this year, dealing with the waste lines through large rectangular holes and working on Building 257, former home of the Cold War era radioactive liquid waste facility, to prepare it for demolition and decommissioning.
“Characterization results indicated higher than expected contamination levels so we needed to step back and further analyze. In the coming year, we will be completing the safety analysis based on the newly-discovered contamination levels and enacting the anticipated controls so that we can get back in and finish the work safely,” Legare said. “It’s unfortunate but that’s what we’re going to do every time – conservative decision-making and step back and proceed when it’s safe to proceed.”
He said safety can’t be taken for granted.
“We maintain that focus for our employees and for the community. Safety is an entry level criterion for doing work. We have a very strong team that incorporates safety in all of our work,” Legare said.
In FY2020, N3B employees had only three minor injuries. Two important indicators used in the DOE complex are total recordable case rate (TRC) and the days away restricted of transferred rate (DART), both of which record injuries that require treatment beyond first aid. N3B’s safety reporting metrics of O.45 TRC and 0.6 DART are exceeding their own goals and DOE’s averages.
Legare also discussed N3B’s efforts at completing maintenance on time.
This is something that is important for operability and the safety of our employees, so we’re staying at a very marked upward trend of on-time maintenance – both preventative and corrective maintenance. Additionally other leading indicators would be our managers out in the field observing work,” he said. “Just about across the board we’re seeing our leading indicators are moving as well. I can’t say enough about our safety record. It really is best in class in the environmental management business. Our performance stacks up very well with our industry for being focused on safety.”
Legare noted that at N3B, every meeting starts with a safety share and an ethics share to reinforce that the company cares about its safety and ethical behaviors from the top through the whole organization.
“They are two of our core values and they are framed in everything we do. Even a 30 minute meeting starts with a safety and ethics share. It’s interesting how often that comes back to you for example getting into your car and remembering someone sharing a safety story about cleaning the snow off your windows. I think it works; I think it’s effective and it affects how we go through the day,” he said.