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Government Science

Nuclear Waste Accident Costs Los Alamos Contractor $57 Million 166

HughPickens.com writes The LA Times reports that Los Alamos National Security, the contractor managing the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, NM has been slapped with a $57-million reduction in its fees for 2014, largely due to a costly nuclear waste accident in which a 55-gallon drum packaged with plutonium waste from bomb production erupted after being placed in a 2,150-foot underground dump in the eastern New Mexico desert. Casks filled with 3.2 million cubic feet of deadly radioactive wastes remain buried at the crippled plant and the huge facility was rendered useless. The exact causes of the chemical reaction are still under investigation, but Energy Department officials say a packaging error at Los Alamos caused a reaction inside the drum. The radioactive material went airborne, contaminating a ventilation shaft that went to the surface giving low-level doses of radiation to 21 workers. According to a DOE report, the disaster at WIPP is rooted in careless contractors and lack of DOE oversight (PDF). "The accident was a horrific comedy of errors," says James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. "This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll."

The accident is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closure that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule. According to the Times, the cost of the accident, including likely delays in cleanup projects across the nation, will approach $1 billion. But some nuclear weapons scientists say the fine is an overreaction. "It was a mistake by an individual — a terrible mistake — and Washington now wants to punish a lot of people," says Conca. "The amount of radiation that was released was trivial. As long as you don't lick the walls, you can't get any radiation down there. Why are we treating this like Fukushima?"
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Nuclear Waste Accident Costs Los Alamos Contractor $57 Million

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  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @02:28PM (#48788427) Homepage Journal

    "It was a mistake by an individual..."

    A with out good process, more individuals will be making more mistakes. Mistakes that "will approach $1 billion". There is a good reason people are going to walk up the chain and start blaming entire contracting companies, and hopefully start blaming the people that hired the contractors, and blame the people who wrote the processes that the contractors were supposed to follow.

    If we can't get the storage of nuclear waste from weapons and power production right, then we're in a real pickle. A terrible radioactive pickle.

    • by preaction ( 1526109 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @02:34PM (#48788473)

      And when the public sees how seriously errors of this nature are treated, it may help turn a negative (a bunch of leaked waste) into a positive (but we've got procedures in place to deal with and ensure the issue does not happen again). Anyone remember Deepwater Horizon anymore?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Anyone remember Deepwater Horizon anymore?

        I LOVED that movie! Bruce Willis was awesome!

        And the hot chick in the bikini! Wooo!

        Gotta go! NFL is on.

        -John Q. Public.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      "If we can't get the storage of nuclear waste from weapons and power production right, then we're in a real pickle. A terrible radioactive pickle."

      This is an overreaction. Even if you get nuclear waste storage right, accidents may still happen. Overall, nuclear is still safer than any other source of energy so far, including all nuclear accidents since the discovery of the radioactivity. The point is not accidents should never happen, they should be rare and we should handle them properly.

    • by Old Bitsmasher ( 2558475 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:03PM (#48788641)
      "Human error is a symptom, not a cause." -- Nancy Leveson.
      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        The lowest tender is the cause. Inevitably every contracted out process will, I repeat, WILL fail, when handed out to the lowest tender because eventually inevitably, you will get stuck with some idiot driven by greed, taking stupid short cuts to increase profits and fines will never ever fix the problem created. Want to minimise risk then never contract out work but do it in house.

        • Yep, for the lowest bidder, cutting corners just means more profit. The executives don't have to pay back the money they've made and they don't face any real accountability. The worst that can happen is that the subcontractor company goes bankrupt and the executives make up a new company and move on to the next disaster waiting to happen. "Heads I win, tails you lose."

      • by rwv ( 1636355 )

        I had the opportunity to hear Nancy speak a few years ago. Something that resonated with me that she said was that errors/accidents (mostly?) occur because people/systems with imperfect information make reasonable (but bad) assumptions... so the only truly "safe/reliable" system is the one where perfect information is being given to the feedback loops to the people/systems who are making operational decisions (obviously not possible for complex, new systems).

    • by NReitzel ( 77941 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:46PM (#48788867) Homepage

      The huge (and they _are_ huge) cost of cleanup from places like Hanford has to be understood in the context under which it was created.

      The people at Hanford were tasked with creating weapons to kill people, a million at a time. Given that criterion, is it any wonder that they weren't worried about a few salmon, or clean groundwater. They believed at the time that "Nuculer war, toe to toe with the Rooskies" was right around the corner, and they were dealing with the possibility of hundreds of millions of dead. All other reasons just didn't matter.

      That turned out not to be the case, but hindsight is always so excellent.

      Now, the pendulum has swung so far the other way, we want to clean up Hanford (as an example) well enough that we could build a school on the location. That doesn't seem like a realistic goal. As for a plutonium contaminated waste facility, I should point out that Los Alamos had quite the plutonium problem. They solved it by painting the walls coral - bright bleedin' orange - and then painting over with white paint. The rule was simple - if you see orange, call the safety people. It was (and is) not a perfect solution, but it was (and is) a workable one.

      • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

        That turned out not to be the case, but hindsight is always so excellent.

        The irony is that some percentage of their goal will be achieved no matter what they intended. It's a fools errand that leads them to believe that they have control over these materials for the geological timeframes that they will exist while they decay.

      • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

        As for a plutonium contaminated waste facility, I should point out that Los Alamos had quite the plutonium problem. They solved it by painting the walls coral - bright bleedin' orange - and then painting over with white paint. The rule was simple - if you see orange, call the safety people. It was (and is) not a perfect solution, but it was (and is) a workable one.

        Is this a metaphorical solution that I'm not understanding, or an actual solution to a problem that I don't understand. I'm presuming the problem

        • by rwv ( 1636355 )
          This sounds like a canary/coal mine solution... but I also don't understand the chemistry of it. Does anybody know why a radiation leak would cause an orange-then-white painted wall to show white when there isn't a leak and orange when there is?
        • I can only guess that the walls were radioactive and they "solved" the problem by encapsulating them with paint. Ironically, it'd probably be the one place where using lead-based paint would be a good thing...

          (Actually, I bet they used lead-based bright orange paint to encapsulate the radioactive stuff, then non-lead white paint to encapsulate the lead!)

    • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @01:08AM (#48790991)

      Mistakes that "will approach $1 billion".

      Except that number is artificially inflated for no reason other than bureaucratic overhead. The nuclear industry is worst of all when it comes to this kind of thing and you can never believe the true numbers for cost of construction, running, and decommissioning of nuclear facilities as those are actually costs of "compliance".

      If you don't understand what I mean consider the following very simple example from my work: During routine inspection an electrician identified that a circuit had been hooked up in a way that caused 240V to appear across a metal switch which wasn't earthed. This switch had been pushed in the past and could have killed someone but because there was no path to ground it didn't. It was for cooling tower fans. All that was needed was switching two wires.

      Instead we were required to:
      Barricade and preserve the area.
      Inform the electrical safety office.
      Wait for a day for the electrical safety office to send out a team of 5 people to investigate.
      Give up the time for the electricians to have interviews with the 5 people from the office.
      Prepare and submit corrective action plans ("move that wire over there" wasn't good enough).
      Wait for those to be approved.
      Engage a 3rd party contractor not related to the site to do the work.

      Total time down: 5 days.
      Total physical cost including cost of non-inducted 3rd party contractor who needed supervision on site: $4000
      Total cost billed to the safety office for their mandated investigation: $20000
      Total cost of time lost due to equipment outages, manhours and engineering hours spent during the investigation ~$60000

      Actual cost of repair if we could have fixed the problem at the time: $80 (2 people 45minutes).

      And this wasn't even a nuclear incident.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

        This switch had been pushed in the past and could have killed someone but because there was no path to ground it didn't.

        Err... The path to ground is through your body and shoes, or maybe to some other metal object that you happen to be touching at the time. Having 240V (presumably mains AC current) on a switch is insane and extremely dangerous.

        More over, the problem with your argument is that it requires someone to determine when strong control and regulation is required and when it isn't. Clearly we disagree over the above example. Even if this were possible and economical, it would probably have negative consequences. One

        • Having 240V (presumably mains AC current) on a switch is insane and extremely dangerous.

          Am I missing something? Isn't there a 240V switch in just about everybody's house (e.g., the circuit breaker for something like a dryer, AC or electric oven)?

          • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

            Yes, but the switch itself is not at 240V, it's isolated from your finger so you don't get electrocuted...

        • Err... The path to ground is through your body and shoes, or maybe to some other metal object that you happen to be touching at the time.

          Well yes which is why it was reported as an electrical incident.

          The problem is not in the level of reporting, it's the level of administrative overhead which is applied on the resolving actions, and this is the same for the nuclear industry.

          I've commissioned large safety systems before. It takes a few months to do. An example of western style nuclear safety can be seen at Lucas Heights. Commissioning of their safety system took 18months. It was quite a bit simpler with simple cause and effect style logic th

  • Clarification (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 11, 2015 @02:51PM (#48788587)

    It's not entirely clear in the summary, but the accident didn't happen at Los Alamos, it happened at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [wikipedia.org], the $19b pilot plant that is at least in part a replacement for the Yucca Mountain plans.

    Also, the original mistake that caused the chemical reaction? They used the wrong kind of cat litter to package the plutonium [npr.org]!

    This is surprising to me, as I recall reading about plans for Canadian underground storage of nuclear waste back in the 90s. The plans then were to vitrify it - process it into a glass crystal - so that (a) Terrists couldn't get at it, and (b) it would be inert. I'm kind of amazed that they the DOE is happy with using steel drums and cat litter on their plutonium, though if it works (assuming you get the right kitty litter) then there's no reason to stop using it, I suppose.

    • "This is surprising to me, as I recall reading about plans for Canadian underground storage of nuclear waste back in the 90s. The plans then were to vitrify it - process it into a glass crystal"

      The rather long article touched on this. The NNSA has tried to do this as well as create an MOX fuel reprocessing facility the same as the french, however the NNSA are trying to process weapons grade plutonium which they have not had any success with storing or processing safely apparently. The contractors that seem

      • Reprocessing is separate from MOX production.

        Presently reprocessing doesn't really do a lot for waste volumes BTW. Used MOX doesn't get reprocessed.

  • by Brannon ( 221550 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:19PM (#48788731)

    If a single individual can make a mistake of this magnitude, without it being caught by checks and doublechecks, then the process itself is fragile and flawed. That is a systemic problem and deserves a systemic response.

  • by QilessQi ( 2044624 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:22PM (#48788747)

    As long as you don't lick the walls, you can't get any radiation down there.

    I was just in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and that is literally what I did. :-(

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W... [wikipedia.org]

    • by Gorobei ( 127755 )

      " As long as you don't lick the walls, you can't get any radiation down there. "

      Wow, a link to a SciAm article. Let me go read the source. Oh dear, it says absolutely nothing about licking walls. Guess that was just the submitter making stuff up.

      • Huh? The submitter didn't make anything up... the quote was clearly from the bottom of this LA Times article, which was their very first link in the summary:

        http://www.latimes.com/nation/... [latimes.com]

        The SciAm article is just a relevant reference about plutonium poisoning.

        • by Gorobei ( 127755 )

          Oh, so it was a quote from James Conca, a nuclear power booster, not Scientific American. That's just plain dishonest.

          • how is it dishonest? the source was quoted, it was said. Can't personally comment on how accurate the comment is but in what way is citing a quote with appropriate citation dishonest?

    • Salt is radioactive [youtube.com] (specifically the potassium in potassium chloride, which is a small component of natural salt). Heck, your body is radioactive. The quote was correctly trying to downplay the radioactivity danger, but unfortunately did so by propagating the misconception that the natural world is not radioactive.
  • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:22PM (#48788749) Journal

    "It was a mistake by an individual"

    And the individual's supervisor and the person who trained the individual and the person who devised the individual's test after the training and the person who checked that the test was suitable and the person that did the risk assessment for the work the individual was doing and the person who checked the risk assessment for the work.

    There are methods for making sure accidents don't happen, if those methods aren't followed then a lot of people are responsible.

    You'd think they could get this stuff right after half a century of dealing with waste.

    Could be worse... The Mafia's Deadly Garbage: Italy's Growing Toxic Waste Scandal [spiegel.de]

  • "The accident was a horrific comedy of errors," says James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. "

    What comedy, there's nothing funny about plutonium leaking. Once it got into the ventilation shafts it got into the air for us to breathe and improve our chances of getting cancer. So the whole so called isolation project was compromised.

    • The silly thing is, this is the exact same guy now saying it was just the mistake of an individual. Multiple e-mails were sent which suggested mixing organics with the waste salts while the company asked for it to be looked at by someone who could determine it safe ... nothing got sent to the right people. There isn't even a fucking decent inventory.

      Mr. Conca is full of shit.

    • Nobody said it was funny. "comedy of errors" == "unbelievable fuck-up".
  • by Dogtanian ( 588974 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @03:31PM (#48788803) Homepage
    Haven't read all the linked articles through yet, but it's been mentioned in the past- and again in the articles- that one of the reasons for the explosion may have been the use of organic-based kitty litter(!) reacting badly with the materials being disposed of, and that the inorganic version should have been used.

    One version I heard was that they changed the kitty litter formulation; this version suggests that they bought organic instead of inorganic [slate.com] kitty litter because of a typo.

    Now, there's nothing wrong with using what amounts to kitty litter to do whatever it was being used for. If that does the job, fine.

    But whichever of the cases described was true, a problem is that if the stuff they're buying is intended and sold as kitty litter, it's quite possible that the makers may feel at liberty to change the formulation in a way that doesn't effect its use as kitty litter, but massive alters its safety as a "nuclear waste disposal material".

    If having organic matter in your kitty litter could inadvertantly turn the nuclear material into a form of radioactive explosive, then you should be damn sure that you're getting the inorganic formulation from a supplier that can guarantee that this is what you're getting. It won't be called "kitty litter" even if that's what- in effect- it is, and it'll probably cost a lot more, but the supplier will (or should be) in the s*** if they supply the wrong type, whereas are Los Alamos going to sue "Pets R Us" for causing a nuclear explosion even if they *did* inadvertantly put organic in an inorganic bag, or change the formulation with insufficient notice (or whatever)?

    So this is why (e.g.) the military (for example) might pay a lot more for a given item than you or I might pay over the counter. That, and the fact that they're probably diverting the money to some dubious black ops...!
  • Is this what slashdot has come to?

    Fine. I'm out. I first got my /. account back in 1998 but this is the last bullshit I'll tolerate. This site is no longer relevant.

    • Is this what slashdot has come to?

      Fine. I'm out. I first got my /. account back in 1998 but this is the last bullshit I'll tolerate. This site is no longer relevant.

      You know, I think I first read something like that twenty years ago.

  • Because we're not only dealing with a radiation leak here, we're dealing with an airborne contaminant that just happens to be the most toxic substance known to Man?

    • most toxic substance known to man??? their are chemicals where just a drop is enough to kill thousands of people. I would doubt this stuff even rates in the top 10. stuff like botox, ricin, sarin, cyanide and a raft of other chemicals are far more toxic and for the many of them quite common.

      • by ihtoit ( 3393327 )

        LD50 of nicotine: 10mg (Guinness)
        LD50 of caffeine: 160mg (NHS)
        LD50 of cocaine sulphate: 80,000mg (NHS)
        LD50 of plutonium: 200ug (Cohen)

        One fiftieth the amount needed for nicotine, is all the plutonium you need to pretty much guarantee death in half the people exposed.

  • by Kazoo the Clown ( 644526 ) on Sunday January 11, 2015 @11:44PM (#48790821)
    The problem is not at this point any radiation risk. The problem is DOE is INCOMPETENT. An accident cannot be tolerated in nuclear materials handling. No matter what you say about how great and safe nuclear power CAN BE, the fact is, give the actual mechanisms of management and implementation, IT'S NOT. In this case, it may have been a relatively minor mistake, but minor mistakes can be catastrophic, and THAT'S WHY NUCLEAR POWER IS A BAD IDEA. Either government or corporate bureaucracies are completely incompetent at managing it. Do you want a BP running a nuclear power station? You remember, the BP that was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster?
    • by Mr.CRC ( 2330444 )

      Excellant! You understand the difference btw. technical vs. political/human challenges, unlike 99% here.

      It doesn't matter what can be done technically. The fact is, people will fuck it up. That is why complicated technology is sometimes the very wrong choice, when compared to simple technology. Nuclear is complicated, with potentially huge consequences for error.

      I'm not anti-nuclear, but very libertarian/capitalist. I'm convinced that if nuclear's externalities were truly priced in, it would be 10-20

      • by rwv ( 1636355 )

        Efficiencies are a major issue with Wind and Solar. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation a few years ago for powering the state of New Jersey with Solar and estimated that the size of the Solar Panel arrays for this implementation would be approximately the size of the entire state of New Jersey. It could be that solar is 5-10x more efficient than they were at the time I did my guesstimate, but even at those levels Solar doesn't scale like that.

        FYI... I recall reading at the time that nuclear power

        • by Mr.CRC ( 2330444 )

          Yes, the land area numbers are large. But we shouldn't stifle options such as solar because of falsely thinking that it has to be the sole replacement for all electrical production.

          Single family homes seem to have enough roof area to power themselves via solar in most latitudes which are not disproportionately cloudy. This is a no-brainer. That leaves industrial use, which will be powered by the remaining mix of production.

          The only solution is price--markets, and freedom--if I want to put up solar pane

  • The problems with the system are obvious but I think it's hilarious that a contractor was finally held responsible for fucking up. I mean, they lost 90% of their contract price for this year because of this accident. Hopefully, this would make them act more properly now that their bottom line is at risk.

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