NNSA Says No Injuries, Contamination During February 26 Incident At LANL Plutonium Facility


February 26 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4) waste generator site at Technical Area 55 involving sparking in a where a metal waste item in a transuranic waste drum has resulted in a potential noncompliance notification to the New Mexico Environment Department.

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Field Office confirmed that there were no injuries, no fire, contamination or release of material to the environment.

“During normal waste packaging operations, small sparks were observed in a plastic waste bag containing a High Efficiency Particular Air (HEPA) from a titanium welding area inside a glovebox,” she said. “The staff at TA-55 responded quickly and effectively, appropriately following safety protocol to evacuate the area and notify the Los Alamos Fire Department.”

A March 12 letter from NNSA to NMED noting the potential for noncompliance under the Hazardous Waste Facility permit says preliminary calculations indicate that there is no imminent or potential threat to human health or the environment and that NNSA is providing this report as a precautionary measure to keep NMED informed of the fact-finding extent of condition and the planned recovery path.

The NNSA letter indicates that on February 26 within the glovebox in the building, workers packed a transuranic waste drum for disposal in accordance with Waste Isolation Pilot Plant waste characterization requirements. Two HEPA  filters were placed into the drum followed by a “metal waste item” which tore the bag containing the filters. When the metal item made contact with the HEPA filters, workers observed sparks coming from the drum. Workers pulled the fire alarm and immediately left the area and notified LANL emergency response. Reports on the incident indicate that  Following the immediate response and clearing of the area by Los Alamos Fire Department, the initial inspection revealed that there was no release of waste or radiological contamination outside of the glovebox and that visual examinations showed no damage to the drum out bag or gloves.

On March 1, a fact-finding preliminary investigation commenced to determine the cause of the reaction. The letter to NMED states that the investigation is currently ongoing, however, it is believed that the HEPA filters contained fragments from titanium welding that had been conducted in the glovebox under inert conditions. It says when the bag tore during drum packing, air entered the bag and oxidized the metal powder in the HEPA filters which caused the sparking.

On March 4, NNSA notified WIPP that there may be a potential noncompliance with the WIPP Waste acceptance criteria, the letter states. The container involved is safely connected to the glovebox and operations in the room have been paused pending a recovery plan, the letter.

An extent of condition review has identified potential containers associated with this waste stream with similar characteristics at both LANL and WIPP – four containers located at LANL and two containers at WIPP.The NNSA’s preliminary technical and engineering calculations demonstrate that those drums are safe and do not pose an imminent potential risk to human health or the environment. These calculations show that “the drums do not have sufficient titanium or tantalum particles to cause a temperature pressure excursion that would breach a drum”, the letter to NMED states.

“LANL has brought in outside experts to analyze safety risks and an independent review panel has been formed to confirm the analysis of the event and recommend process improvements. An analysis is currently underway to determine and understand the causes that contributed to this event,” the NNSA spokesperson said Tuesday. “The waste drum operations remain paused while analysis of the event continues.”

An NMED spokesperson told the Reporter Tuesday that the Department is monitoring the situation closely.

“We reviewed this report and have requested additional details and clarification,” she said. “We will continue to work to determine whether there are any compliance issues and take appropriate action if that is the case.”