The Department of Energy admitted Friday it will not meet a deadline to remove dangerous radioactive waste, currently stranded above-ground in unsafe conditions at a New Mexico nuclear weapons laboratory, before wildfire season hits.
At least 3,706 cubic meters of radioactive waste are being stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex after the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, was shut down indefinitely in February due to an airborne radiation leak.
Officials in New Mexico have warned that the waste at Los Alamos could be within the reach of wildfires and must be transferred elsewhere by the end of June. According to the Associated Press, "The agreement for removal of the waste by June 30 was reached after a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property three years ago, raising concerns about the thousands of barrels of waste that were being stored outside."
"The waste at Los Alamos is trapped with no place to go," Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer and nuclear safety advocate at Fairewinds Associates, told Common Dreams.
The Los Alamos radioactive materials are "transuranic waste" that is described by the DOE as "clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil and other items contaminated with radioactive material generated during decades of nuclear research and weapons development."
Concerns have been raised about the safety of these barrels after it was posited that changes in methods of packaging at Los Alamos, from use of inorganic to organic cat litter to absorb moisture, may be responsible for a chemical reaction with nitrate salts and set off the "heat event" behind the WIPP leak. Officials are still trying to determine the cause of the accident and are investigating the potential danger of the more than 500 nuclear waste containers originating from Los Alamos that were packed with organic cat litter.
The DOE had been sending some Los Alamos radioactive waste to a Texas facility for temporary storage until WIPP is functional. Upon discovering that Los Alamos shipments may be dangerous, the DOE halted all shipments, citing public safety.
But Gundersen warns that these barrels of waste could pose a threat in Texas and Los Alamos, where they are being stored above-ground. "It is worse in the summer, because it is hotter in the summer, and the reactions become less stable," he said.
In a statement (pdf) released Friday, the New Mexico Environment Department said it is "disappointed, but not surprised" that the DOE will not meet its deadline to remove the waste.
Meanwhile, it is still not clear when WIPP will reopen. The facility, which was never supposed to leak, is the bedrock of the U.S. government's current approach to dispose of military-generated plutonium-contaminated transuranic waste from decades of nuclear bomb production and testing.
Critics have warned that WIPP's failure raises serious questions about the overall federal strategy for disposing of nuclear waste.