BY MAIRE O’NEILL
While Department of Energy Environmental Management officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory have touting the number of shipments of legacy waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, sources tell the Los Alamos Reporter that only waste containers already staged in Dome 49 at Area G can be shipped at present.
Area G, which has been open since 1957, is a site within Technical Area 54 where LANL’s transuranic (TRU) and low-level waste is stored, characterized, remediated, and shipped offsite. Some 32 pits, 194 shafts and four trenches are located at Area G, as well as multiple canvas domes where waste is stored above ground.
A copy of a standing order for “restricted operations” obtained by the Los Alamos Reporter states that based on extent of conditions, reviews and further evaluation of the TA-54 Area G Basis for Interim Operations (BIO), N3B is in the process of adjudicating multiple Potential Inadequacies of the Safety Analysis (PISA) under an interim deliberate safety basis strategy due to the number of simultaneous deficiencies within the BIO, N3B is restricting operations to only “essential activities”.
“This reduction in operational scope is necessary to allow N3B and DOE adequate time to work through identified issues within the BIO,” the standing order says.
The standing order makes allowances for approving additional activities through the “Situation Room” and through a Nuclear Safety Work Authorization Release. Operations are restricted to minimal mission-essential activities primarily focused on facility-related regulatory obligations including performance of Technical Safety Requirement surveillances, environmental compliance inspections and lifesafety and compliance actions; limited mission-essential activities deemed safe to support future resumption of normal operations are allowed. Material at risk (MAR) movements are minimized. Approved activities are performed under current operational restrictions and compensatory measures that are in place to address identified PISA conditions.
Transuranic waste movements supporting four shipments already staged and segregated at Dome 49 are allowed under the standing order,
In response to questions from the Los Alamos Reporter regarding the Area G situation, a written response from an N3B spokesman said the term being used for the slower work and inactive hours currently at Area G is “reduced operating posture which requires a deliberate activity level review and approval process that includes support from EM-LA and DOE-HQ”.
Although N3B claims in the email that “all CH-TRU staff are being fully utilized”, sources tell the Reporter that employees have been sent home two hours early at the end of the day for weeks and that some employees have been observed watching movies on their cell phones during their shift.
Asked what part of the overall scope of work at TA-54 is being affected, the spokesman responded, “While work at TA-54 continues, N3B has established a conservative operations posture to ensure worker safety in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In consultation with EM-LA, N3B has been reviewing operating processes, procedures, and other documentation to decide on a case-by-case basis the order in which various activities are being prioritized at TA-54. The current operational posture will ensure N3B continues to protect the safety of our people, the public, and the environment.”
In response to a question about a reported high turnover in management and how it might be affecting operations, the spokesman said EM-LA and N3B are proud of the highly skilled workforce they have.
“As with any highly skilled workforce, some turnover is expected and planned for. We have ensured appropriate skill sets are aligned to effectively support the CH-TRU mission at Area G and we continue to make progress with that scope of work,” the email said.
The N3B response said the problems with the BIO were identified as part of a recent Extent of Condition review which began in October 2020 and was completed in January 2021. It said the Extent of Condition review was initiated due to concerns identified after the start of the N3B contract and as a result of ongoing technical reviews by N3B and DOE staff.
Weekly reports filed by Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board on-site representatives as well as DOE Occurrence Reporting and Processing System reports have documented and described the 22 PISAs currently in place for Area G. On January 8, the DNFSB rep noted that while the 17 PISAs that had originated in 2020 indicated “a healthy scrutiny of the safety basis, N3B and EM have struggled to efficiently develop, approve, and implement the required safety basis documents to ensure safety and support the important risk reduction mission at Area G.”
An April 29 DNFSB site report noted that in March a Facility Representative for the EM Field Office issued N3B a finding against DOE guidance associated with the PISA process saying “N3B did not make multiple PISA determinations in the expected timeframe of ‘hours to days’ and noted that documentation associated with multiple PISA determinations included more analysis than the expected “go/no-go” for this step in the process”.
EM-LA Field Office Manager Kirk Lachman told Northern New Mexico Community Advisory Board members at their Wednesday meeting that during the last fiscal year which ended September 30, there were five EM shipments to WIPP.
“This year, we’re well underway towards our goal of 30 shipments. We’re in the high 20s. We’re on pace to exceed that goal of 30 shipments. N3B has done a fantastic job and I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out NNSA as well as Triad for their help in getting us into the RANT facility so that we can load in (wet) weather like we’re having right now,” Lachman said.