Jul 10, 2009

Spill at LANL Waste Plant

Frank's laptop died this morning, and so he asked me to post for him this John Fleck news article from yesterday's Albuquerque Journal.


By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer

A 40-year-old plant at Los Alamos National Laboratory that treats liquid radioactive waste had another leak last month as some members of Congress are balking at the rising costs of the plant's replacement.

The leak happened when a plastic connector cracked, spilling 500 gallons of contaminated water onto the floor inside one of the plant's buildings, according to a report from federal nuclear safety officials. The water flowed into a sump inside the building, and none of it escaped, according to the report.

The incident highlights the increasingly fragile nature of the aging plant. In a report to Congress earlier this year, the National Nuclear Security Administration said the portions of the plant's waste treatment systems “are over 40 years old and their reliability is significantly diminishing.”
But a key House committee this week eliminated funding for major upgrades, complaining about “significant cost overruns” for the project.

The June incident is the second time in the last year that a similar plastic part cracked, causing a leak, according to a report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal body that provides independent oversight at Los Alamos and other nuclear weapon sites.

The Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility, located in the lab's Technical Area 50, came on line in 1963.

The plant, connected by a network of piping to 63 buildings at Los Alamos, treats water contaminated with radioactive materials as a result of work on nuclear weapons and other projects at Los Alamos.

Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark acknowledged that the plant “does not comply with current codes and standards,” including seismic, building and electrical codes.

The Safety Board has argued that problems at the waste treatment plant threaten the lab's ability to carry out work with radioactive plutonium done at Los Alamos to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons, because continued breakdowns would leave no way to deal with the radioactive waste the work creates.

Roark said the spill was cleaned up within days and did not interrupt operations at the plant.
In 2006, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated the cost for waste management upgrades at $80 million to $100 million, but a budget report sent to Congress this year said it was likely to rise.

The House Appropriations Committee voted this week to cut all funding for the project, with committee members saying they are “concerned with the significant cost overruns” on the project and want to delay spending until design issues can be resolved.

Roark declined comment on the House committee's vote to cut funding for the project. “It is much too early in the appropriations process to assess potential future impacts,” he said.


Frank Young said...

At least the waste makes it all the way to TA-50 now. Just a few years ago it leaked into one of the electrical rooms downstairs in PF-4 before it ever even made it to TA-50. That's a big improvement! Now, if someone at LANL will just figure out what exactly is in the waste....

Anonymous said...

Frank, according to LANS it is/was as harmless as "drinking" water being delivered through 60 year old plumbing. It was certainly water with some unimportant residues. So don't be alarmed. LANS has everything under control and keeps us all safe, or so...

Frank Young said...

They are wonderful aren't they. And they were right about the shoes that grip too. I'd hate to slip in that stuff!

Anonymous said...

LANS has been testing the water fountains at the lab. However, they only test for simple things like chlorine levels and fecal matter.

No testing is being done for any heavy metals and chemicals, which is the real concern given the age of these pipes.

Drink the fountain water at your own risk. Many of the lead pipes in the older buildings are well over 50 years old with heavy corrosion and eroding solder joints.

Anonymous said...

It's unlikely there are any lead pipes through which drinking water flows at LANL. Old solder did contain lead. If there is corrosion, it probably keeps lead from entering the water.

But, it's still curious why somebody won't tell Frank what he was exposed to. One would think there would be records of leaks at PF-4. What year was it, Frank?

Frank Young said...

I only know the spill occurred before my first day in PF-4, which was 1 April 2002.