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Report IDs 'weaknesses' at nuclear weapons lab

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A report issued Wednesday by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Energy squarely places blame for the shutdown of the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository on failures at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The inspector general's office identified several major weaknesses in the lab's procedures for packing contaminated gloves, tools and other radiological wastes that were destined for permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

Not all of the lab's procedures were properly vetted and some procedures didn't conform with environmental requirements, according to the findings.

The report reinforces the findings of internal reviews done by the lab and the Energy Department after a canister of waste from Los Alamos leaked in one of WIPP's storage rooms in February, contaminating 22 workers and forcing the indefinite closure of the nuclear waste repository.

"Our review identified several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed to the radiological event," the inspector general said.

The inspector general has outlined several recommendations to correct the lab's failures, saying changes need to be made before the cleanup of radiological waste continues.

The lab said Wednesday it is addressing the recommendations as part of its efforts to "learn from these events and improve our operational practices."

Four lab workers have already been reassigned as a result of the incident, and the DOE has pulled nuclear waste cleanup operations from the contractor that runs the lab.

Watchdog Greg Mello said he was pleased that the latest report identified the lab's role in causing the contamination and shutdown of the waste repository.

Mello described the violations of well-established procedures by the lab as shocking and said lab officials need to be held accountable for violating their operating permit and causing the leak at the waste repository.

Cleaning up the waste repository and resuming full operations could take as long as three years. The cost has been estimated at more than $500 million, including the installation of a ventilation system and exhaust shaft.

While it's unclear what caused the barrel to breach, investigators suspect a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with a lead glove and organic cat litter to absorb moisture. A final report on the cause is expected by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the lab is trying to determine what to do with drums of waste that contain similar ingredients. More than 500 are being stored temporarily at the waste repository, 86 are at the lab and another 119 are at a facility in West Texas.

The waste stored at Los Alamos is secure in steel and glass structures and is regularly monitored, according to the lab.

The inspector general found that the lab has spent several million dollars for temporary storage of the drums, chemical analysis and other costs related to the investigation. Those costs are expected to increase as the lab works to meet the recommendations.

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