Saturday, July 02, 2011

Those Drums at Area G

The Las Conchas Fire has become less threatening to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and, as I write, the director, Charles McMillan, is talking about how the Lab is planning its restart. So the scaremongers will have to move on from the drums containing low-level waste at Area G to the next sensation. Yesterday I talked to someone who has actually repacked some of the drums and has dealt with the paperwork. I learned some things I didn't know.

The drums are not just any old things from Joe's junkyard, but are manufactured to a list of specifications, including the fit of the covers and closures. Each one has a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter so that air can move into and out of it with changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure without carrying waste materials out.

There are no mysterious sludges and uncontrolled chemicals in the drums.

The fabric buildings have fire suppression systems. I realized, some time after yesterday's conversation, that this must be the foam that was mentioned in a few accounts of the drums, frequently disparagingly. Foam is a standard fire-suppression agent. The accounts I saw made it sound like a joke. I don't know whether this was because of the way it was presented by Lab representatives or the way it was reported by people who didn't know what they were talking about.

I'll add a bit about fabric buildings. I'm thinking that they must be made of fire-retardant fabric. There have been too many deadly tent fires, and I think that the laws about such buildings have long been that they must be fire-retardant. They have, however, been standing for some time now, and those properties can change with exposure to the weather. (Also see comment from Anonymous below.)

The drums are there because some of the scaremongers who are saying the drums should be in WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, NM) are the same people who fought and delayed the opening of WIPP and fought and delayed transporting the waste there.

I'm wondering why the Lab didn't say all these things, perhaps issue a fact sheet, in response to media inquiries. Early Lab responses on the subject were a refusal to comment. But this has long been the way the Los Alamos National Laboratory has handled such things. That's too bad, because it allows the scaremongers to get their fantasies publicized.

Update: Here's a photo that shows Area G and the fire. And another looking away from the fire.


Anonymous said...

Hi Cheryl,
The domes are treated with a fire-retardant. The foam that is discussed would be an additional measure beyond the fire protection that exists in the domes, which is automatic fire sprinklers. There are also IR and PE smoke detectors. The foam would almost certainly be applied by hooking up to a LAFD truck and letting loose with the water+foam mix. The #1 protection out there is having nothing to burn, so you wouldn't get to the extreme temperatures needed to phase the drums.
-lab engineer

Cheryl Rofer said...

Thanks, anonymous! Very helpful!

Anonymous said...

WIPP has been open for more than a decade. If the waste hasn't shipped by now, that is DOE's fault, not any of the "scaremongers" you describe.

Stephanie Hiller said...

Most of the material at Area G is transuranic waste, meaning it contains contaminants heavier than uranium, including plutonium. It is NOT low-level radioactive waste. If it were, in the U.S. it could be buried in shallow trenches; LANL has buried low-level radioactive waste in unlined pits, trenches and shafts in the volcanic tuff for decades. Transuranic waste, on the other hand, requires disposal in a deep geologic repository, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP disposes of waste from defense-related activities only. The costs of burying transuranic waste in this manner is costing billions of dollars.
LANL is loaded with all kinds of radioactive waste! We are fortunate that the fire hasn't reached it, but the threat has revealed that there is cause for concern about waste management at the Lab.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I'm sorry, Stephanie, but you're wrong. My informant actually worked with the waste and made out the paperwork to send it to WIPP.

Perhaps you could tell us the source of your information. There's a lot of the wrong stuff floating around.