SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Scientists investigating a mysterious radiation leak at the federal government's underground nuclear waste dump have identified five other potentially explosive containers of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory that are being stored at a site in West Texas, New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told a legislative panel Tuesday.
Flynn told lawmakers that scientists have been unable to replicate the chemical event believed to have a caused a drum to breach at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Feb. 14, contaminating 22 workers. But they have tied the barrel to a waste stream from Los Alamos with an unusually high acid level, he said.
That waste was packed into a total of six drums, including the one at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The rest are among more than 100 that were shipped from Los Alamos to Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, after the leak indefinitely shuttered the New Mexico facility, which is the federal government's only permanent repository for waste from decades of building nuclear bombs.
Asked if the public should be worried, Flynn said: "Every member of the community should be concerned. ... But I don't think they should be worried. I don't think people should be panicked about another drum exploding because we required (the U.S. Department of Energy) to plan for that and have a system in place to protect the public."
Chuck McDonald, spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, said all the drums there have been specially packed and are under constant monitoring. Extra precautions are being taken with barrels that have been identified as potentially more problematic, McDonald said. Los Alamos and Waste Control Specialists took a series of extra measures to secure the more than 100 drums left in limbo by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's closure because they were packed with cat litter to absorb moisture. A leading theory is that a switch by Los Alamos from inorganic to organic cat litter helped fuel the "heat event" that popped the lid off the 55-gallon barrel that leaked at the nuclear waste dump.
The Department of Energy has dozens of the world's finest scientists trying to identifying what type of reaction could have caused the leak, Flynn said after the hearing. But he estimated it would be months before a definitive cause is determined.
Until then, Flynn said, it is hard to speculate on what if any action can be taken to finish getting the last of thousands of barrels of decades-old waste off the Los Alamos campus in northern New Mexico. The lab had been under orders to have the waste shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant before wildfire season peaks. But given the uncertainty of what caused the radiation leak, transporting the waste now is seen as too risky.
Flynn said it also remains unclear how long the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will be closed or how long it will take the plant to seal off the rooms where more than 350 other barrels of suspect waste from Los Alamos are currently stored.
"We just don't have any clear answers," he said.