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Nuke Dump Explosion Risk?

Nuke Dump Explosion Risk?

Sandia’s critics argue that the landfill basically has all the ingredients of a dirty bomb .


A 2.6-acre unlined nuclear waste dump on Kirtland Air Force Base poses a danger of fire and explosion that could scatter nuclear waste across Albuquerque, says Dave McCoy, a long-time critic of Sandia National Laboratories, the former operator of the dump.

radioative barrels by TieroA fire and explosion is exactly what occurred in October at a radioactive waste disposal facility in Beatty, Nev. Metallic sodium buried in drums filled with oil came in contact with water and exploded.

“The drums that the stuff was buried in 40 years ago corroded, the oil leaked out and water got in,” Nevada’s state fire marshal told the Las Vegas Sun. “That’s what caused the explosion.”

What’s in Sandia’s landfill?

Sandia’s mixed-waste landfill, which closed in 1988, contains nuclear fuel pins, enriched uranium, debris from the Nevada Test Site, rods from the Space Nuclear Auxiliary Program, fission products and cladding, and an irradiated fire truck.

Also in the landfill are unknown materials in four canisters in Pits 35 and 36 that are “classified” and have no disposal sheets and are not listed in Sandia’s inventory.
Yet Sandia memos obtained by Citizen Action New Mexico reveal canisters in those pits with high levels of radiation that are suspected of containing metallic sodium. Liquid metallic sodium has been used as a coolant in certain types of nuclear reactors.

 Although officials said no radiation was released in the Beatty incident, such an explosion and fire could happen here, said McCoy, executive director of Citizens Action New Mexico, which has challenged Sandia’s assertions that the landfill poses no threat.

Metallic sodium is believed to be part of the nuclear stew simmering in the Sandia landfill. It explodes when it comes in contact with water and burns in contact with air. “It’s been there for about as long as Beatty’s has,” McCoy said.

Sandia’s critics argue that the landfill basically has all the ingredients of a dirty bomb – sodium as the explosive, plus a wide variety of highly radioactive waste that could spread a plume of radioactivity across Albuquerque.

Despite Sandia’s repeated denials that there is no high-level waste buried here, Sandia’s own internal memos dating to the mid-1990s show that,

screen grab of Beatty, Nev., nuclear waste dump explosion on Oct. 18, 2015

A television screen grab of cellphone video of waste exploding in a Beatty, Nev., nuclear waste dump on Oct. 18, 2015.

as defined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high-level radioactive waste was buried in two pits in violation of U.S. Department of Energy regulations.

The memos, obtained by CANM through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal a leftovers tests and experiments from the Cold War – radioactive fuel pins [U-235 pellets placed inside metal cladding], multiple fission products – all definitive evidence, CANM alleges, that material in the shallow trenches was irradiated in a nuclear reactor and thus qualifies as high-level nuclear waste.

In the dark

The memos indicate that lab officials provided an incomplete inventory of the landfill’s contents in a 2002 published radionuclide inventory and that Sandia appeared to mislead two congressional review panels as to the landfill’s contents in 2000 and 2002.

Meltdown experiments

“During the period of 1997-98, I began meeting with Mr. Cox at Sandia to determine the waste in the MWL by type, volume, and location. Mr. Cox escorted me into the building in Technical Area V. … He told me that experimental meltdown packages containing fuel pins irradiated in the Annular Core Research Reactor (ACRR) were put into the MWL. The meltdown packages contained spent fuel from exposure to radiation. I was aware that Sandia had disposal sheets for the MWL, but Mr. Cox was unable to obtain them for me.” – DinwiddieMcCoy added, “Given the presence of explosive metallic sodium mixed with radionuclides such as Plutonium and Americium, the only alternative that is protective of human health and safety is excavation of the MWL, safe storage and deep geologic disposal.”A spokesman at Sandia has asserted repeatedly to ABQ Free Press that there is no high-level nuclear waste in the landfill.

“Sandia has been forthcoming about the Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL) and adheres to all regulatory requirements for public participation. Sandia provides interested members of the public with the opportunity to review and comment on documents prior to approval by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). Sandia’s record of regulatory compliance at the MWL is documented in the extensive administrative record that is publicly available through the NMED,” a lab spokesman said in a written response to questions posed by ABQ Free Press.

“Contrary to recent allegations related to the inventory, Sandia did not withhold information,” the spokesman wrote.

The debate over what is buried in the landfill hinges on the definition of “high-level waste.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s legal and regulatory definition of high-level waste encompasses “the highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors.”

According to the NRC, “High-level wastes take one of two forms: (1) Spent (used) reactor fuel when it is accepted for disposal; (2) Waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed.”

That’s different from “highly active” radioactive materials, which can generate high levels of radioactivity but were not created as a result of the operation of a nuclear reactor. Such waste could include debris from nuclear blasts and other experiments, which Sandia has acknowledged do reside in the landfill.

Lab officials have proposed covering the landfill with a “bio-intrusion” barrier to prevent water from reaching it, then covering it with native vegetation and soil. CANM wants the materials dug up and buried in a repository deep underground.

N.M. misled?

Robert “Stu” Dinwiddie headed the Permits Management Program for the New Mexico Environment Department’s Hazardous & Radioactive Materials Bureau from 1995 to 1999. He also worked as the supervisor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Permitting & Corrective Action Projects for the NMED Hazardous & Radioactive Materials Bureau from 1994 to 1995.

Dinwiddie told ABQ Free Press that at the time of the issuance of a critical September 1997 state proceeding, NMED was completely unaware of the four Sandia management memoranda.

“Canisters from meltdown experiments could not be readily examined due to the reactivity of metallic sodium. Sandia did not provide any of the four memos to me during that period,” Dinwiddie told this newspaper.

The Danger of Not Knowing

In 2004 testimony, Marvin Resnikoff, an independent nuclear waste expert, addressed the problem of not knowing the contents of Pits 35 and 36:
“As an example of important missing information [from Sandia], consider the following. Pit 35 has very high direct gamma rates at the surface. … What accounts for these high direct gamma readings? Pit 35 contents are listed as 686 kg depleted Uranium (DU) and 203 Ci Tritium. Neither of these materials accounts for high gamma readings.”

If he had been provided the memoranda and disposal sheets at the time of the 1997 review, Dinwiddie said, he never would have allowed Sandia to obtain approval (called Corrective Action) for disposal of mixed waste in the dump.

Critics contend Sandia has disingenuously used a limited definition of high-level waste in its denials and has ignored DOE Order 435.1, which it is obliged to follow, that defines high-level waste as including “highly radioactive waste that requires permanent isolation.” Fuel pins and fission products are examples of high-level waste.

In one of the four Sandia memos, dated March 20, 1997, W.B. Cox, B. Botsford, and B. Forbes wrote to G.K. Laskar about the danger to workers who might be tasked with trying to identify what exactly is in the landfill.

“There may be hazardous constituents in the [Pit 35 and 36] canisters. Each canister would have to be dismantled, sampled and analyzed … for suspected hazardous constituents. … [A]nd the necessary handling to obtain the sample will result in personnel radiation exposure to the sampling personnel.”

The memo continues, “If metallic sodium is present, as suspected, sampling could be very dangerous [emphasis in original] as a result of this metal’s reactivity.”

An April 1, 1997, memo repeats the warning: “If metallic sodium is present, as suspected, sampling could be very dangerous as a result of this metal’s reactivity.”

The memo states, “Since Pit 36 … is considered to be the worst-case exposure scenario. … Based on the above considerations, we recommend that Pits 35 and 36 be backfilled with clean soil and the canisters remain in the pits along with the other waste items in the landfill.”

Past practices

It was standard policy and practice to dispose of canisters in the mixed-waste landfill from the meltdown experiments containing uranium-235 fuel pins and metallic sodium. Sandia found itself “between a rock and a hard place when it could not continue the practice,” according to Sandia’s 1984 Excess Special Nuclear Materials document.

Jerry L. Peace, author of one of the memos, punctuates the danger lurking in the landfill. “There are no doubt additional cans [of waste] in the landfill but their location is unknown,” Peace wrote on Feb. 20, 1997.

Nuttall said, “That’s proof they’re lying. Because they can’t verify what’s in the canisters by inspection of the canisters. They don’t even know where they are.”

Dinwiddie said the “combination of the high levels of radiation and metallic sodium, the four Sandia 1997-98 memoranda, and the disposal sheets lead me to the conclusion that high-level nuclear mixed waste was disposed of in the MWL and that Sandia was not forthcoming with any documentation of the high-level mixed waste.”

As a state nuclear waste regulator, Dinwiddie said, “Had I known of the memoranda and disposal sheets, I would never have allowed Sandia to obtain Corrective Action for what constitutes the disposal of high-level nuclear mixed waste in the MWL.”

“Canisters from meltdown experiments could not be readily examined due to the reactivity of metallic sodium,” Dinwiddie said. “Sandia did not provide any of the four memos to me during that period.

In December 2004, Marvin Resnikoff, a nationally recognized toxic-waste storage expert, testified at a public hearing in Albuquerque that Sandia’s dump has been seriously mismanaged and that that illustrates the need for a change in lab culture.

Without a firm understanding of what’s in the landfill and where in the landfill it’s located and what kind of containers it’s stored in, “it is difficult to judge remediation alternatives,” Resnikoff testified. “I therefore recommend that Sandia devote resources to determining the full radionuclide inventory of the MWL, as has been done at other DOE facilities [such as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory].”

Bob Klein’s investigation of the Veterans’ Administration, “Wounded Men, Broken Promises: How the Veterans Administration Betrays Yesterday’s Heroes,” was named a Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards finalist in 1981.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.