Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)

Carlsbad, New Mexico – A vast salt mine under the New Mexico desert was the Department of Energy’s last nuclear waste storage solution. On Valentines night, one of the now suspect 500 waste drums from DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) blast open inside DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Casks filled with 3.2 million cubic feet of deadly radioactive wastes remain buried at the crippled plant. That huge facility was rendered useless. Investigators believe the waste drums from Los Alamos were incorrectly packed under DOE supervision and one of them exploded.

“As part of the ongoing efforts to identify the cause of the event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, we are evaluating all possible causes including the waste packages themselves,” a statement issued by DOE says. “All possible scenarios will be thoroughly investigated until the cause of the event has been determined.” Investigators are examining “the possibility that a chemical reaction may have occurred within a drum, causing a potential release.”

The disaster at WIPP is rooted in careless contractors and lack of DOE oversight, according to a DOE report released on April 24.

Greg Mello

Greg Mello, the Executive Director of the Los Alamos Study Group, says, “Perhaps most important is DOE’s willingness to walk away from how waste was supposed to be managed.” Mello points out that four months after the explosion, there are still 367 suspect storage canisters that came from LANL that are still at WIPP. He says they were packed with a form of kitty litter that DOE investigators fear could explode due to a chemical reaction with the radioactive contents inside each container. “The kitty litter acts as an explosive oxidizer. What are already in these storage drums are radiation contaminated salt nitrates – effectively the same salts as in gunpowder. How a national laboratory like Los Alamos let this happen is an issue that needs to be explored,” Mello says.

Losing Track of the Tainted Plutonium Waste

After the Valentines night explosion, investigators discovered that there was no accurate inventory of what was stored where in the huge salt caverns. Only when WIPP workers in radiation suits were sent to photograph the blast area did DOE learn that the 55-gallon drum was one of 368 placed in WIPP storage areas 6 and 7.  Called Panels, these huge storage rooms are supposed to be sealed forever once they are filled to the celling with drums of radioactive waste. Early Panels in WIPP’s history were filled and sealed (Panels 1, 2, and 5) with a 12-foot concrete explosion isolation wall, while Panels 3 and 4 were closed with a steel bulkhead and did not have an explosion isolation wall.

It was DOE’s decision to cutback on WIPP’s safety requirements to save money that is having a profound effect after the explosion. According to former DOE official Bob Alvarez, originally blast proof steel bulkheads were supposed to seal off the huge Panels once they were full. The idea was that the salt rock ceilings would eventually collapse on the drums and seal the outside world from the dangers of the nuclear materials forever. Instead, as the WIPP operations became routine, DOE first cancelled the blast proof bulkheads as too expensive and opted for metal but not blast proof bulkheads. As the WIPP site aged, those requirements were eventually ignored as well.

Last week the New Mexico Environment Department issued an administrative “expedited closure” order for DOE to seal off the two storage panels at WIPP where the Los Alamos waste is located because it fears another serious radiation leak. DOE has just ten days to develop a plan to seal off Panels 6 and 7 under the administrative order. There are 313 Los Alamos drums in Panel 6 and 55 in Panel 7, according to DOE officials.

Prior to the explosions, DOE claimed the blast walls were not needed. At the time of the February explosion, Panel 6, even though it was full of drums and had reached its capacity, had not been sealed off in any manner as DOE had originally designed. That meant that when the explosion took place in Panel 7, Panel 6, left open, could still be contaminated. State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told local newspapers, “I agree those Panels need to be closed immediately.” If the blast turned into full plutonium flash, other drums in Panel 6 could be affected and the disaster spread, which is why it is vital for workers at WIPP to know what is in the containers and where they are located.

The radiation from the Valentines explosion made it impossible to send crews into the facility to identify and retrieve the remaining 367 suspect containers from Los Alamos. In fact, it was quickly realized that the records kept at WIPP were so outdated that identifying the drums administratively was difficult as well. Investigators discovered that electronic records of what was in the drums had not been kept up to date with deliveries.

The New Mexico Environmental Department obtained emails that show EnergySolutions, the waste contractor that packed the containers, got permission from Los Alamos to change procedures even though the product they proposed to use to secure the radioactive material inside the drums was widely known to cause a chemical reaction with the radioactive waste. Emails in May 2013 between the LANL and its contractor, EnergySolutions, reveal that America’s premier national radiological laboratory approved the use of a product as absorbent packaging material for damp and wet plutonium-laced waste in containers destined for WIPP even though instructions on the product warned against use with metallic nitrates, the very material in the nuclear waste.

EnergySolutions asked LANL managers for approval even though instructions on the product said the material was not safe to use with metallic nitrates, salt nitrates, and organic matter that can act as an oxidizer, a chemical reaction that generates heat. The material, which is used as kitty litter, can chemically react with the nitrate salts in the waste drums. Cole Smith, a chemist with the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau said it was “a bad combination.”

Evidence of Damaged Drum in Panel 7, Room 7: During the May 22 entry, this close up photo of the unsealed waste container was taken.

Nine months later, one of the packed 55-gallon drums sent to the site exploded.

In August 2013, Zeke Wilmot, EnergySolutions’s industrial hygienist, asked in an email for approval to use a new liquid to neutralize acids and bases in the drums. Wilmot mentioned in his email that “criticality safety issues are not my area of expertise” and “it may be advisable to have LANL personnel weigh in on these issues as well.”

The Albuquerque Journal reported that a subcontractor’s technical representative for LANL environmental programs responded to Wilmot and approved the change in a September 2013 email copied to eight other people. The approved product also contains an organic ingredient that could have chemically interacted with the waste.

“It wasn’t the most fantastic choice because nitrate salts in combination with organics is a bad mixture,” said Smith, a member of the NMED team that oversees the WIPP permit.

“That might be the problem right there,” said William Quintana, head of the New Mexico State University chemistry department. “Nitrates are oxidizers. Every chemist knows that.”

The Journal reported WIPP and LANL did not grant requests for interviews regarding the emails released by NMED. EnergySolutions did not respond to requests for information or an interview on the waste packaging process at LANL.

A LANL spokesman emailed a statement to the media saying, “We’re looking into all possible causes and will continue to do so until we are satisfied that we know what caused the radiological release.” A WIPP spokeswoman emailed a statement saying, “We continue to investigate the details” of the radiation release.

Smith said the WIPP permit does not detail procedures for the neutralization process or for obtaining neutralizing products, and NMED was not involved in either purchasing decision.

Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center, that has been critical of DOE and WIPP, said the emails also do not say what kind of testing may or may not have been done at LANL before the products were approved. “There is no way anyone can make a big change without it going through a lot of people…Now we know there are multiple people who were aware of this back in 2013.”

What bothers radiation experts is the fact that such a premier radiation laboratory allowed a contractor to use an organic material like kitty litter to absorb wet radioactive materials that were being sent to WIPP.  James Conos, a Richland, Washington, geochemist and nuclear waste expert, said the reason for the mistake was kitty litter has been used for years to absorb radioactive spills. But for waste storage, it is vital the material used as an absorber be inorganic. He said kitty litter is full of organic substances that will chemically react with radioactive materials in a long term storage situation. “This is just basic chemistry.”


Both DOE and LANL are not cooperating with the media. When asked what specific contractor was responsible for packing the 500 suspect containers, Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the LANL complex, would not directly answer. When pressed he said, “You are being hostile. …We have several contractors doing waste processing for Los Alamos.” When asked again, Netrick said, “We don’t know if this was the cause of the accident.” When asked the question again, he said, “I don’t have that information.” Asked if he could find out, he said he would try, “But the answers would have to be cleared with our customer, the Department of Energy.” He said any additional questions should be submitted via email.

NMED asked for the emails as part of its investigation into how product choices were made by DOE and its contractors. While Flynn said the cat litter theory remains the most viable, NMED’s goal, he said, is about “understanding what happened and whether they deviated from the regulations. It doesn’t really matter who is to blame…They all work for DOE.”

DOE Stops Inspecting WIPP Waste

Also being examined is a change in WIPP inspection procedures. In 2006 the New Mexico Environment Department made changes to the requirements for inspecting some containers before they were shipped to WIPP. Up until 2006, DOE transuranic waste containers were routinely inspected for contents to make sure the manifests matched the contents.  While the inspection was cursory, the idea was to try to prevent dangerous chemicals from ending up at WIPP. In 2006, inexplicably the DOE requested a change to greatly reduce chemical testing to a few sample barrels.

Top, The Three Mile Island NPP on Three Mile Island, circa 1979; Bottom, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,1986.

Greg Mello says he does not believe the inspection process would have prevented the explosion at WIPP. But he said, “The decision was reflective of a general weakening of oversight of what got placed in WIPP.” Mello said the “dangers come because some waste mixtures are potentially explosive if not appropriately packed…Containers with organic matter and transuranic isotopes produce hydrogen. Other explosive gases can be created.” Nuclear waste in liquid or solid form can chemically react. The witches brew in waste containers is similar to what is being stored in huge corroding waste tanks at DOE’s Hanford and Savannah River where the great danger is a hydrogen explosion from a gas buildup caused by the chemical reaction with the nuclear materials. It is the same threat that first responders and the public faced with the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in March 1979, the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and more recently, in March 2011, at the MOX fuel Reactor Number Three at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant when a hydrogen explosion blew apart the containment building.

The New Mexican newspaper reported, “In March, 2013, the New Mexico State Environment Department approved letting the Department of Energy only test containers ‘as needed’.” The paper quoted Dan Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program and an administrator at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque as saying, “In 2013, all of the real inspections of the containers at all the generating sites were stopped. So almost for the last year, there hasn’t been a requirement for shipments to WIPP to have more than paperwork for the containers.” The New Mexican reported, “The Environment Department said at the time that the change did not weaken safety requirements for the containers. But Hancock said Friday if investigators find that chemical reactions in the containers caused the leak at WIPP, the problem has implications for the nation’s entire nuclear complex, not just the Carlsbad facility.”

From Deep Underground to Open Trenches

The WIPP site was chosen as a secure underground repository that is carved out of a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed formed 250 million years ago. DOE stores the waste 2,150-feet underground in huge rooms mined from the salt bed. WIPP has been accepting what is called TRU or transuranic waste since 1999. It was designed as an experiment to see if salt storage would work to isolate waste that could be dangerous for thousands of years. The radioactive containers are stored across 120 acres in seven-room Panels, each the size of a football field. WIPP was held out to be the model of safe nuclear waste storage.

According to DOE, “WIPP is a deep geologic repository for permanent disposal of a specific type of waste that is the byproduct of the nation’s nuclear defense program. It is the nation’s only repository for the disposal of nuclear waste known as transuranic, or TRU, waste. It consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. Disposal of transuranic waste is critical to the cleanup of Cold War nuclear production sites. Waste from DOE sites around the country is sent to WIPP for permanent disposal. TRU waste is categorized as ‘contact-handled’ or ‘remote-handled’ based on the amount of radiation dose measured at the surface of the waste container. Contact-handled waste has a radiation dose rate not greater than 200 millirem (mrem) per hour, while remote-handled waste can have a dose rate up to 1,000 rems per hour. About 96 percent of the waste to be disposed at WIPP is contact-handled. TRU waste is long-lived and has to be isolated to protect public health and the environment. Deep geologic disposal in salt beds was chosen because the salt is free of flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable. Salt rock also naturally seals fractures and closes openings. WIPP has been disposing of legacy TRU waste since 1999, cleaning up 22 generator sites nationwide.”

Transuranic Waste Shipment to Waste Control Specialists

DOE confirms that four percent of the waste at WIPP is so radioactive that it can give a human being a fatal dose of radiation in minutes and can only be handled using robotics. By February, WIPP was accepting larger and larger amounts of the most radioactive material. Understaffed, WIPP managers had to cope with incomplete manifests from sites sending radioactive material. A former WIPP official said, “We would know if it had to be remote handled but what was inside a canister was not updated in the computer database. We knew if a canister was dangerous but not how dangerous. If a canister contained a large enough amount of certain elements, there could be the threat of fire or explosion. The DOE sites that sent in the waste got careless in documenting what was being shipped in…The contractors at the sites packing the waste were not exactly meticulous. When we complained to DOE, it was made clear we were just to keep taking the waste and to shut up.”

The Nights of Fire and Explosions at WIPP

There were warnings that not all was sanguine at WIPP. On Wednesday February 5, a truck used to haul salt taken out of the mine to make room for more and more radioactive casks caught fire because of a fuel spill.  A fire in a mine is always serious. But a fire in a high-level nuclear storage facility is very serious. The first concern was a storage cask or canister had caused the fire but no radiation monitors went off, only a fire alarm. Eighty-six workers were slowly evacuated from the mine.

Fortunately, the workers made it to the surface and the fire was isolated to the ruined truck and involved no radioactive waste. That day there was no plutonium flash, no compromised canisters; just six workers were transported and treated at Carlsbad Medical Center. Another seven workers were treated at WIPP for smoke inhalation and the facility closed until everyone was certain the fire was out. A crew had to be sent in to do the inspection because, inexplicably, the WIPP facility is remarkably short of sophisticated remote sensing equipment. DOE immediately began an investigation.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) put together an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) to review what had gone right and wrong. The main contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, as well as the entire Carlsbad DOE field office was under scrutiny. DOE issued a press release saying, “The fire was a serious event that posed a threat to workers deep underground. In this case, the fire resulted in minor smoke inhalation to six workers, but it did not impact the public or the environment. There is no indication the fire was related to the February 14 radiological release.”

What investigators found was shocking. Carlsbad DOE officials did not conduct basic oversight of the private contractors running WIPP.  The contractors failed to implement basic fire safety procedures, such as managing flammable truck fuel in an underground nuclear storage facility. In addition, WIPP officials repeatedly ignored the recommendations of the Defense Facilities Board – the gold standard for maintaining basic safety standards at all defense facilities. But the most damning part of the report said the safety culture required in such a dangerous environment no longer existed. Ironically, as the fire investigation was still underway, investigators had time to prevent the explosion that was to come. But their observations were ignored. The DOE EM report should have resulted in the immediate shutdown and full safety review of the facility. Instead, DOE Washington pressed to keep the waste flowing into WIPP. “The reality is DOE is overwhelmed with nuclear waste and has no safe place to put it,” Greg Mello says.

Nine days later, 2150 feet under the New Mexico desert, just before midnight on February 14, a canister of Los Alamos plutonium-tainted nuclear waste exploded. In a nuclear repository holding thousands and thousands of similar canisters and casks in what was supposed to be the most secure nuclear storage facility in the world, the very thing that was never supposed to happen did. No security cameras had been installed that could view the explosion. The radiation unleashed by the cracked canister quickly contaminated the sprawling underground salt mine. The seven football-field sized rooms in the Panels contain canisters that could have then caught fire and exploded. The continuous air monitor (CAM) finally detected the radiation and an alarm sounded alerting the night shift that high-level radiation had been detected. At that point, the contractors and DOE had no idea of the extent of the damage.

A DOE press release put the best face on a disaster: “Only 11 employees were at the WIPP site on the surface, no employees were in the underground. Two other WIPP employees reported to the site a couple hours later. The continuous air monitor measured airborne radioactivity close to the operating location where waste was being emplaced. Ventilation air is pulled from the underground repository by huge fans on the surface. This exhaust consists of unfiltered clean air… When the CAM alarmed, two dampers were automatically closed in the exhaust duct that redirected the exhaust through high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that removes radioactive particles.

DOE said, “The next day an above ground exhaust air monitor on the WIPP site detected very low levels of airborne radioactive contamination. The 140 employees at the site were kept indoors as a precaution while air samples were taken. The 13 employees present during the radioactive release event on February 14 were tested for internal radioactive contamination after the event. The 140 employees have also been offered testing.

“It is believed that a small amount of radioactivity leaked by the exhaust-duct dampers, through the unfiltered exhaust ducts and escaped above ground. The exhaust duct dampers are large ‘butterfly’ valves that are designed to close and cut off the airflow through the exhausters. However, the valves do not fully seal the exhaust ducts and still allowed a small amount of unfiltered air to escape.”

In fact, DOE employees used spray foam to seal the dampers to keep more radiation contaminated air from escaping from a half mile underground.

That night America’s only official high-level nuclear waste site was rendered useless for at least the next three years. Everything that was supposed to happen did not. Air vents to the surface did not automatically close. DOE failed to keep computer records updated of what deadly waste was in what container and where it was located. That small explosion not only contaminated 21 workers and caused an unknown amount of radiation released into New Mexico’s air, but it also revealed a Department of Energy that is the midst of a nuclear security crisis not in some far off country like Pakistan or one of the former Soviet Republics but here at home.

This time the Environmental Management team asked to investigate by DOE did not have to face the pressure of telling headquarters that WIPP should be shuttered. Radiation contamination did that for them.

The loss of WIPP means the most deadly substances science has managed to create will have to be stored in place across our country in places totally unsuited for such storage. At WIPP, the deadly conditions created by the explosion will make monitoring the remaining radioactive materials very difficult. The official report of the WIPP accident was scathing. But scathing reports on DOE operations are common.

The Accident Report

The report has a familiar litany and tone: Ignored warnings from the Defense Facilities Board, lack of DOE contractor supervision, and a missing safety culture. There are hundreds of similar reports about the Savannah River Site, LANL, Oak Ridge, Hanford and other DOE national laboratories and sensitive national security sites. The Department of Energy is in serious trouble. It has the same mindset NASA had before the loss of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. Accidents like these happen when tough technical and engineering challenges are routinely pushed aside.

The report was conducted in two phases. Phase I dealt with the release of the radioactive material from the underground environment and the follow-on response to the contamination. The 302-page report, written in DOE bureaucratic language, said that human error and lack of DOE oversight caused the explosion.

Phase I found that the DOE contractor could not easily locate where plutonium waste canisters were because the DOE never installed an upgraded computer system to track the dangerous waste inside WIPP. Investigators found that the contractors were trying to remember where the canisters and casks were stored because they had no real tracking system.

James Hutton, acting deputy assistant secretary for safety, security and quality programs, ran the AIB investigation and his fellow board members concluded WIPP had never installed a video surveillance system to monitor the waste stored in the caverns. “With no underground video cameras, the above-ground central monitoring room operator could not determine if a breach of a waste container had occurred during the February leak.”

The WIPP computerized Central Monitoring System has not been updated to “reflect the current underground configuration of Panel 8 and adjacent bulkhead locations,” the report said. “Facility operators are forced to rely on memory regarding the actual configuration of the facility. Therefore, the operator may not be able to react and appropriately respond to all abnormal conditions or events.”

Hutton recommended WIPP upgrade the Central Monitoring System to reflect the current status of stored waste and finally install an underground camera system. The report also revealed that internal communications inside the mine were compromised when a dozen of only forty phones in the huge mine did not work. That meant that emergency communications could not reach all parts of the mine and the underground workers in crisis.

From WIPP to West Texas

Texas Compact Waste Facility (CWF) owned and licensed by the state of Texas, operated by Waste Control Specialists

In addition to the order to seal the two Panels at WIPP, the State of New Mexico also wants an explanation of how DOE will secure, isolate and treat the 57 drums of plutonium waste still at Los Alamos in Area G. NMED attorney Jeff Kendall said,  “The timing of these two orders is the result of the most recent evidence provided to us.”

While DOE’s accident board was trying to figure out what had happened at WIPP, Los Alamos officials quickly moved to rid themselves of the remaining problem containers. The lab ordered its contractor to ship the potentially explosive containers to a commercial, very controversial, open-trench private dumpsite in Andrews County, Texas, just across the border from New Mexico.

Chuck McDonald

For a period of a month this spring, LANL allowed suspect transuranic (TRU) waste casks from Area G to be sent to the low-level West Texas depository. Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, which owns the storage facility, confirmed that it had received “about 100 of the waste canisters that were originally supposed to go to WIPP before the explosion. We have them isolated within concrete containers that are covered with gravel. We are using thermal sensors to make sure they do not overheat.”

One reason Los Alamos was pushing its contractors to move the remaining containers to Waste Control is it is operating under a consent order with NMED to finish removing the last of 3,706 cubic meters of radioactive waste stored above ground in about 4,495 containers by June 30. Los Alamos had shipped a few hundred containers before DOE investigators called a halt to the shipments.

Gregg Mello said, “Shipping transuranic waste from Los Alamos to an unsuitable site like Waste Control Specialists for temporary storage was a very bad idea. It was done to meet an arbitrary deadline.”

Los Alamos agreed to an $8 million base contact for Waste Control to store the drums.

McDonald says Los Alamos had tried earlier to ship waste with higher radiation levels but the site had turned down the shipments because its license is only for low-level waste. McDonald said there is legislation pending in the Texas legislature that would permit Waste Control to become a high-level waste dump. He says, “DOE had suggested Waste Control as a preferred storage site for tons of mercury-laced waste from the DOE nuclear weapons Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge but they have so far accepted none of that material.”

Gregg Mello, who follows activities at Los Alamos, says, “What DOE Los Alamos did raises real questions. They came up with an excuse to get rid of the remaining containers still at Area G in Los Alamos as quickly as possible. What their motive was is the real question.” Mello says that the Los Alamos management “concocted a scenario that the remaining containers had to be removed from Area G because of a local forest fire danger.” The containers were stored a mile from the Los Alamos suburb of White Rock, New Mexico. Because White Rock is downwind from Area G, Mello says LANL used the fire threat as an excuse to urgently get rid of the remaining containers. There was no fuel near the container storage site that could cause the containers to burn, and DOE had claimed previously the canisters were completely fireproof, Mello says.

Former President George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry’s single largest political contributor, the late Texas billionaire Harold C. Simmons, founded Waste Control Specialists and used his political influence to get the West Texas nuclear disposal site approved by state and federal licensing officials. The political efforts used to secure the licensing caused years of controversy in Texas. Environmentalists opposed the site because it is on an important aquifer in Texas. Another reason is that one of Simmons’s companies had operated a lead incinerator in Dallas that became an EPA Superfund Site.

Despite this environmental pedigree, LANL and DOE officials chose Waste Control Specialists to administrator their alternative nuclear waste storage site. While technically the company has licenses only for low-level nuclear waste, under its Texas permit, Waste Control can accept certified waste from federal agencies.

DOE officials said the Waste Control site is just a temporary alternative to the disabled WIPP. That is not true. Los Alamos and other national laboratories with high-level nuclear waste have been planning to use the Texas site for years, well before is licenses had been approved. The political promises that were made that it would be only for low-level waste were a ruse. As long as four years ago, during a Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board meeting in Aiken, South Carolina, DOE officials and SRS contractors talked openly about using the Texas site to offload uranium waste from SRS.

In late May, DOE investigators became so concerned about the Los Alamos containers being stores in what amounts to an open pit, they halted the shipments to Waste Control. The 112 canisters already at Waste Control were ordered to be isolated and surrounded by large concrete containers as well monitored by television camera. As of May 28, seventy-three Los Alamos containers have been segregated and covered with the cement and gravel-filled barriers.

Harold Simmons’s team lobbied hard to get only the second license in U.S. history from DOE for a private nuclear dump. They got the licensing in the last days of the Bush administration. Prior to the LANL decision to ship containers of transuranic waste to the site, there were warnings to Waste Control that it had already been accepting waste it was not permitted to receive.

Pressure has been building for years for DOE to stabilize and isolate its growing high-level nuclear waste stream. After the WIPP explosion, the DOE suddenly concluded that the thousands of feet below earth in salt beds were no longer needed to store the most deadly radioactive material on earth. Open trenches in the West Texas desert would be good enough. On April 2, tractor trailers hauled the first of the Los Alamos casks of radioactive high-level waste to the Andrews County dump before the WIPP investigation team succeeded in halting the shipments.

Why Is There A Waste Crisis?

The WIPP accident is symptomatic of a much bigger problem at DOE and that is the scale of nuclear waste that decades of weapons production, nuclear research, and civilian and university reactors have produced. In addition, U.S. foreign policy and the fall of the Soviet Union made DOE the agency with the responsibility of converting old nuclear weapons into supposedly safer materials. That job is done by a little known but very powerful government agency, inside the Department of Energy, called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). To government policymakers and politicians, NNSA, despite its poor record, is indispensible in managing excess nuclear weapons materials from around the world. When the president makes a deal to accept another nation’s nuclear material, NNSA is the government agency that is tasked with getting the nuclear material out of the other nation’s inventory and transporting it to the United States. These actions have added greatly to the amount of high-level nuclear waste with which the Untied States must contend.

NNSA is in Charge of the Nuclear Waste Stream

Congress created the NNSA in 1999.  It was structured as a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) after DOE labs suffered a series of spy scandals. The NNSA was charged with the maintenance and modernization of the nuclear warhead stockpile, the operation of research laboratories, and nuclear and non-nuclear weapons production sites, and the management of nuclear non-proliferation activities and naval reactors.

NNSA was created with the full support of the Pentagon. The military no longer wanted to be technically responsible for “special” or nuclear weapons. Revelations involving a secret multi-billion dollar slush fund to resume atmospheric nuclear testing called SAFEGUARD C and a tragic 1991 nuclear exercise called MIDNIGHT TRAIL were part of the reason the military decided to offload the nuclear weapons portfolio and wind down its own nuclear weapons administrative operations.

During the MIDNIGHT TRAIL exercise, a live nuclear weapon was actually lost for a time and a 19-year-old Air Force guard name Laurie Lucas was killed during the fake “surprise” exercise. The Guam incident and intense nuclear negotiations over limiting U.S. and post-Soviet nuclear stockpiles convinced the Clinton administration that nuclear weapons activities should be under an agency independent of the military. By the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, that policy evolved into the NNSA.

The Department of Energy was created in 1997 during the Carter administration with the mandate to make the United States energy independent. Because of its nuclear weapons responsibilities, the NNSA gets the bulk of the DOE budget. As a result, the NNSA – in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons development and nuclear nonproliferation programs – is much more powerful than its umbrella department. The military, however, still controls the nuclear weapons budget. Greg Mello says that is why NNSA follows the Pentagon’s instructions that the productions of nuclear weapons and delivery systems come before “everything else like cleanup and waste mitigation at DOE.”

Early in the Obama administration, massive amounts of stimulus funds went to DOE to cleanup the Cold War legacy waste. Those monies were almost completely squandered by DOE contractors. In response, the NNSA was allowed to take over effective control of what was once the independent environmental side of DOE.

Give Us Your Nuclear Weapons

NNSA officials successfully convinced Congress, the State Department and the arms control community that it had the technical ability to safely convert nuclear weapons into safe and usable reactor fuel. So in the post Cold War world, U.S. policymakers encouraged some of the former Soviet Republics, South Africa and other countries to give the NNSA its nuclear warheads and other nuclear waste in exchange for providing civilian nuclear reactor fuel.

In the meantime, from the Ukraine to Japan, deadly materials are brought back to the United States and processed into reactor fuel or simply stored on American soil. NNSA assurances that it could provide these services are the basis of promises and treaty obligations our government has made.

NNSA convinced State Department negotiators that it had a way of converting nuclear bombs into reactor fuel. The French had been making a form of Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX) for years, but the weapons based fuel the U.S. planned to produce had never been done before. There were technical challenges that policymakers and the arms control community either did not understand or intentionally ignored. This weapons grade MOX fuel proposal was the basis of a Clinton-era deal with the Russians. The United States would build very expensive and untested facilities to produce nuclear fuel rods from weapons grade plutonium. Russia decided, instead, to reprocess its plutonium in a new generation of reactors. For NNSA, the ability to process “bomb” pits into fuel had a major benefit. The new facilities could be used to replace the antiquated weapons separation facilities at places like the Savannah River Site, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos.

The MOX plant became the premiere NNSA project. It had bipartisan support. The State Department relied on the project to meet Clinton-era nuclear treaty obligations. Some top State Department officials thought it was the practical road to nuclear disarmament.

While NNSA puts forward its peacemaker image, its first role by federal statute is to service the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Nearly every decision NNSA makes allows it to use its new facilities to repurpose weapons grade material into an entirely new generation of nuclear warheads should the national command authority deem it necessary.

NNSA was quickly put to work bringing in tons of weapons grade materials to DOE facilities. From the Ukraine to Libya, NNSA became an important and vital tool of foreign policy.

NNSA and DOE had already inherited a long and failed history of government agencies that had failed to manage the legacy waste from the Cold War. And now it was importing the rest of the world’s nuclear materials.

Even if it had worked – converting nuclear weapons into reactor fuel – these efforts would have produced massive amounts of additional toxic high-level nuclear waste.

NNSA is drowning in nuclear waste with no means to safely secure and store it. WIPP was their last best hope.

America’s Inherited Nuclear Waste Problem

Tha Manhattan Project, Hanford B-Reactor site, June 1944

The original Manhattan Project, which developed our nuclear capability, paid little attention to waste. Plutonium was dumped in the ground at Hanford where the production reactors for the Manhattan project operated. The pressures of the Cold War made environmental and health concerns a low priority issue at the old and secretive Atomic Energy Commission as it vastly expanded weapons production with the creation of the Savannah River Site to produce plutonium for H-Bombs. At SRS, nuclear contamination was disposed of carelessly and is widespread over a site bigger than Washington, D.C.

Physical surveys done at Hanford and SRS revealed massive mishandling of high-level nuclear materials over decades. Over a hundred million gallons of high-level nuclear waste is stored in huge leaking and corroded tanks at Hanford and SRS. This was the volatile chemical stew that came from extracting radioactive materials to create nuclear bomb pits. The labs spent tiny amounts of their budgets trying to figure out ways to mitigate the waste – but bomb improvement and design were overwhelmingly the first order of business. Facts about high-level radiation became the enemy. Everything that radioactive materials touch also become radioactive. For example, water and chemicals used in the weapons process has to be segregated as it becomes radioactive. That is how the liquid waste vastly increased at both SRS and Hanford tank farms.

In addition to the large amounts of weapons waste, a huge civilian nuclear reactor program was building a waste stream of its own. Once fuel roads are used in a reactor, they are extremely dangerous. This spent fuel has no place to go. Decades of the rods are being stored at local power reactors adding expensive storage costs for public utilities. The government’s inability to agree on a repository for this material brought home the politics of the nuclear age. Nothing but time – often hundreds and sometimes thousands of years – will degrade the dangers. The public has little protection from what President Obama described as “our bridge to the energy future.” Science simply has not figured out a way to really mitigate nuclear waste and by the time Obama came into office, the waste had already overwhelmed DOE.

No Place To Put The Waste and No Way To Get Rid of The Radiation

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Plans to store even small amounts of nuclear waste at a federal storage facility built into Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a former site for underground nuclear tests, was controversial. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an early Obama supporter, convinced the president not to use the repository. While South Carolina and other states sued over the decision, the Yucca Mountain facility remains mired in the courts. Desperate, DOE decided to take two approaches.

DOE was burdened with Cold War legacy waste from Hanford and the Savannah River Site. Workers had been exposed and some had died in the process of creating components for nuclear weapons. The aftermath at both sites were more than a hundred leaking tanks of explosive high-level nuclear waste as well as massive contaminated buildings and production reactors that threatened the water supplies of the entire South and Pacific Northwest. So when NNSA began bringing in the foreign nuclear materials to process in the old separation canyons at SRS, they were adding to a toxic waste stream that had already made the huge site America’s largest Superfund Site. Presidents and Congress believed assurances from NNSA that new technologies such as suspending high-level nuclear waste in glass and using the new MOX fuel plant would point a path to the remediation of materials. Their faith was misplaced.

Billions Spent Trying To Solve The Waste Problems

Washington State’s Hanford Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant

DOE spent billions of dollars trying to find ways to solve the waste problem. Not all of them were scientific. In a political attempt to buy more time, DOE got the definition of what was high-level nuclear waste redefined by statute. DOE succeeded in getting levels of nuclear waste downgraded so they could be stored on site at DOE facilities until another storage solution could be found. But the redefinition of what was high-level waste only bought DOE a little time. Lawsuits at Hanford and other DOE sites were forcing the issue. While South Carolina’s SRS embraced questionable nuclear remediation by encasing old reactors and emptied tanks in massive amounts of cement, native American groups and environmental organizations in Washington State’s Hanford facility successfully sued DOE for much more complete remediation. Unfortunately, their success did not mean DOE could achieve a real cleanup. The simple truth is that one promising technology after another failed to eliminate radioactive contamination. The Savannah River Site and Hanford Reservation ended up becoming vast no man lands that would have to be monitored for thousands of years. Former DOE official Bob Alvarez called these places “national sacrifice zones.”

DOE projects designed to transform and isolate weapons grade high-level nuclear materials are complete failures. Efforts to store waste in glass and process weapons pits into nuclear fuel have resulted in a massive increase in high-level waste and radiation accidents at DOE facilities in New Mexico, South Carolina and Washington State. In addition, NNSA management has not addressed security breakdowns at their most sensitive nuclear sites in the United States. In fact, the same failed security contractors responsible for outrageous failures have been repeatedly signed to new contracts year after year.

At the root of the problem, according to one top DOE official, is “the fact that DOE has no real operational control over the NNSA. Under the guise of national security, NNSA runs the contractors, covers up accidents and massive cost overruns and can fire any DOE employee who tries to point out a problem. Because they control so many jobs and contractors, every administration refuses to take them on.”

The Battle Over Transactional Management at NNSA Sites

To understand NNSA is to know that there is a culture – like the military – except this culture is about nuclear weapons and how this power has to be protected from rules and safety barriers foisted upon this brotherhood by outsiders. There is huge resentment among senior lab employees over oversight imposed by DOE after accidents, security problems, and even fraud.

Among their colleagues, these bomb disciples rail against what they call “transactional management. ” That is management that gets in the way of what they deem necessary to secure the country. They believe that oversight boards, like the Defense Facilities Safety Board, should be eliminated or hemmed in. “They believe such oversight stifles their creativity,” Greg Mello says.

The old boy network that dominates the DOE contractor community compounds this attitude.  The contractors are really a group of huge corporations that will partner together to bid on contracts on NNSA and DOE sites.  They hire their LLC leadership from the retired ranks of the nuclear Navy and DOE labs. One of the reasons NNSA can ignore other government agencies like the EPA and the Defense Facilities Safety Board and get away with breaking its own rules at site after site is because of NNSA’s alliance with contractors and the Pentagon’s top brass. NNSA can rally contractors, who also work for the Pentagon, to support politicians who support them. Because the contractors actually run the most important DOE sites, eliminating bothersome oversight is a constant battle the companies and their lobbyists are willing to wage.

One of the major proponents of transformational leadership over transactional leadership of NNSA and DOE labs is Dr. Kumar N. Patel, who is co-chair of the National Research Council Committee on Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories. Patel argued before a Senate Armed services committee hearing on NNSA in April 2012 that “there are a number of issues that need immediate attention, and these include, first of all, blurring of the responsibilities between NNSA and the laboratory managers, undue emphasis on formalities, and management by transaction rather than by oversight. The issue of management and oversight is not the same. Management at the microscopic level slows down individual’s capability to be creative. It slows down the amount of work that gets done and overall it turns out to be less cost-effective than what it should be. Yes, there were some problems earlier with respect to safety and security, but those are well under control. Now the time has come to carry out the management and oversight not by transaction but by having the proper systems in place because that, as we see from industrial experience, turns out to be the most cost-effective way of spending funds, which are allocated, in this case public monies.”

The contractor game at NNSA is played this way: Major corporations form LLC’s and bid for NNSA and DOE contracts. For example, at SRS they bid to clean up waste and get some of the billions of dollars from Obama’s first term stimulus money. Things go wrong, little gets cleaned up, workers get injured or exposed to radiation and outraged NNSA management cancels the contract. A new LLC is formed by the same NNSA list of corporate partners and they are asked to bid on a new management contract. The new LLC hires the same workers as the old management company and the process gets repeated again and again. The same mistakes are made and the process keeps repeating itself. These politically connected DOE contractors, responsible for tens of billions of dollars in failed projects and mishandling of the most deadly materials science has created, have been protected by the biggest names in both the Republican and Democratic parties at an enormous cost to the U.S. taxpayers, public health and the environment.

A French Waste Solution and Disarmament

The Clinton and Bush administrations adapted and pushed the idea that old Soviet and American warhead pits could be converted into mixed oxide reactor fuel based on a French government owned company’s design. But the company, Areva, had never attempted to blend former nuclear weapons material. After NNSA gave the contract and the green light to start building the hugely expensive Mox Fuel Fabrication Plant next to the decrepit old F Canyon at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., sample fuel rods of the weapons grade plutonium were sent to France. What came back was tested in a Duke Power reactor and responded erratically.

DOE tried to force the Tennessee Valley Authority to use the yet to be manufactured MOX fuel in its reactors. Failing that, DOE, going through one of its frequent contractor shuffles at the Savannah River Site, made a deal with yet another LLC that they could have the contract to run SRS in exchange for them making token purchases of MOX fuel for a power reactor the LLC had connections to in Washington State.

An aerial photo shows the full extent of construction at the MOX Project in mid-2011 (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration)

After the failed cleanup at SRS, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) became convinced the MOX plant was fast becoming a very expensive white elephant. NNSA had cannibalized funds from the MOX construction project for weapons related work at SRS. Two years ago, OMB made a politically sensitive but secret decision. It was going to try and kill the MOX program. Recently, the Obama administration concluded that the MOX facility was so over budget and in so much technical trouble, the site should be shuttered and the construction project ended.

The Obama State Department made a huge bet on the program. Former State Department Secretary Hillary Clinton staked her reputation on the MOX fuel program. South Carolina politicians like Senator Lindsay Graham and Representative James Clyburn have lobbied tirelessly for DOE funding at SRS. Despite repeated environmental, security and major project failures, these politicians have looked the other way. Under their leadership, South Carolina went from being the leading H-Bomb production facility in the world to the defacto nuclear waste dump for the world.

The MOX Failure – An Expensive Government Jobs Program

NNSA kept its budget going in the post cold war era by making enormous claims about its expertise in managing high-level nuclear waste and old weapon material. Unfortunately, NNSA so mismanaged the construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, that it morphed from $1.6 billion under the George W. Bush administration to $31 billion and counting today. That was just to convert 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium into reactor fuel that nobody wanted. That did not include the other facilities that needed to be built to get the plutonium ready for the facility and to process the resulting radioactive waste.

OMB was so outraged at continued cost overruns for a plant they believed would never be successfully operated, they recommended to the president it be shut down. The Obama White House ordered the high profile NNSA program put into what it calls “cold shutdown” after October 15, 2014.  The decision caused a firestorm in South Carolina political circles. South Carolina politicians and the State filed a lawsuit against the federal government. In May, the lawsuit was dropped in exchange for funding the facility through the end of the year.

But the MOX debacle is not an isolated incident. Massive cost overruns and engineering failures at other NNSA managed sites include the Defense Waste Facility at Hanford, Washington. That plant is designed to suspend liquid high-level waste in glass. It has suffered huge cost overruns and serious engineering failures.

While there was massive media coverage over $400 million in DOE backed loans to the Solyndra solar panel company that went bankrupt, NNSA has received almost no coverage for mismanagement of more than a  $100 billion in taxpayer money on a long list of huge failed projects. The NNSA is so powerful within the government that it can overrule actions of other government agencies charged with cleaning up DOE Superfund Sites by overruling them in the name of national security or national interest.

The decision to shutter MOX is partially because it, like WIPP, is an experimental pilot plant and will never have the capacity to handle more than a fraction of bomb grade nuclear materials. The idea was to prove the process and then build larger scaled-up versions. The Obama administration was already facing a financial disaster with the scaled-up Defense Waste Facility at Hanford that was based on the SRS pilot plant first envisioned by DOE in the 1970’s. The SRS facility has enormous problems and has never worked as promised. The Hanford facility is already tens of billions in cost overruns and no guarantee that it will ever successfully reduce the massive amounts of high-level liquid waste located in Hanford’s leaking tanks. Despite the billions of dollars spent on the pilot version of that same plant at SRS, there is now more high-level waste in SRS’s tank farms than there was before the Defense Waste Pilot plant began operating in the 1990’s.

NNSA Has More Big Ideas Waiting

Even though the MOX plant was a massive failure, NNSA has more ideas to get rid of the nation’s growing plutonium stockpile. The Department of Energy released a report that analyzed the estimated life-cycle cost, schedule, and ability to fulfill Russian agreements for five plutonium disposition methods, including the facility under construction at SRS. The analysis determined that the contractor for the South Carolina MOX plant, Shaw Areva MOX Services, underestimated annual operating costs and issued change orders for several hundred million dollars. The life-cycle cost is now estimated at $31 billion.

NNSA offered up options to the MOX plant including constructing a $50.5 billion fast-spectrum burner reactor and fuel fabrication facility at the K-Area Complex at SRS.

This facility could be used to manufacture new nuclear weapons and basically replace the crumbling H Canyon. Then NNSA suggested the old plutonium and molten glass immobilization idea that does not work at SRS and is heading toward complete failure at Hanford.  The irony with this proposal is NNSA suggested that it could then dispose of the plutonium in glass canisters in a geological repository for another $28.7 billion.

NNSA also suggested – and they did this with a straight face – that they could down blend plutonium for disposal in a salt-bed repository for a mere $8.8 billion. NNSA also suggested they could place canisters of plutonium in 5,000-meter-deep shafts drilled into crystalline rock for an unknown cost. The report reminded everyone that these four alternatives to the failed MOX plant would require the U.S. to go back to Vladimir Putin and renegotiate a treaty the Russians have already violated.

Ernest Moniz

In a not too subtle push for the Obama White House to reconsider MOX, the report said the MOX facility could complete disposition of 34 metric tons by 2043, and NNSA pointed out this was still the fastest option should the MOX plant ever successfully operate. NNSA stated that it would use this report “as a basis for determining the most efficient path forward for plutonium disposition.” In the meantime, Senator Lindsay Graham congratulated Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz for agreeing not to lay off the Shaw-Areva Mox workers.

Nuclear Waste In Place

The problem for NNSA is the failed projects have turned SRS and other DOE sensitive sites and civilian nuclear reactor sites into nuclear waste dumps. SRS is already a Superfund Site. Yet neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the State of South Carolina has any practical authority to hold NNSA accountable or stop them from bringing in nuclear materials that will increase both the waste stream and threats to the environment. This is because NNSA has national security veto power over all other government agencies because it is entrusted with the stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Early in the Obama admiration, when over a billion dollars in funding was given to SRS for “cleanup,” NNSA suddenly declared itself in charge of the SRS cleanup operation and took control of the environmental funding at SRS.

A former top manager at the Savannah River Site said, “Much of that money was diverted into the MOX plant project which we knew was already in trouble…” At the same time NNSA was running foreign materials through the old H Separation Canyon and producing more waste in the H tank farm for us to deal with.”

Despite all the accidents and financial disasters, President Obama has little choice but to continue to entrust the NNSA with large amounts of weapons grade radioactive materials from overseas – most recently Japan.

At the Savannah River Site and Hanford, the recovery of old TRU waste is like a giant archaeological project. Workers sift through radioactive objects that had been buried decades ago to segregate items to be packaged into containers for what DOE calls permanent disposition. The problem is much of the radioactive material will out live the life of the steel containers or even the glass liquid waste in which it is being suspended. Now all the shipments to WIPP have stopped and the waste must stay in place. That is what makes SRS, Hanford, Oak Ridge and other sites defacto high-level nuclear waste storage sites.

That is why an open pit in West Texas looks so promising to NNSA.

WIPP Town Hall 5/22/2014

WIPP Town Hall 4/17/2014

WIPP Town Hall 3/6/2014

Accident Investigation Report: Phase 1 Radiological Release Event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on February 14, 2014

Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group: Analysis of Surplus Weapon‐Grade Plutonium Disposition Options – April 2014