Flanged Tritium Waste Containers

The mushroom cloud produced by the Trinity test.

Flanged Tritium Waste Containers

The main objective of radioactive waste management is to protect workers, public and the environment from the potential harmful effects of radioactive waste and to minimize the burden for future generations.

Pete Maggiore

First, I would like to thank all of those who joined in the FTWCs virtual public information meeting we held Oct. 20. NNSA and Triad value your insight and input. I would also like to apologize for the technical difficulties we experienced over the course of the presentation. As I promised, we are holding a second meeting Thursday, Nov. 5 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Thank you for your patience. We will see you Nov. 5.


A Flanged Tritium Waste Container (FTWC) is a stainless-steel certified pressure vessel designed for long-term storage of tritium-contaminated waste items. The Laboratory is planning to vent headspace gases from four of these containers.

Questions and Answers

Q. What is a Flanged Tritium Waste Container and why do you need them?

The main objective of radioactive waste management is to protect workers, public and the environment from the potential harmful effects of radioactive waste and to minimize the burden for future generations. An important task for waste management is to translate general waste acceptance requirements into detailed waste package specifications. Flanged Tritium Waste Containers (FTWCs) are specifically designed to provide radiation shielding and/or physical containment to restrict or prevent the spread of contamination as an engineered component for ensuring the safe management of radioactive waste.

Q. What is tritium and what is it used for?

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen gas and an important component in nuclear weapons.

Q. Why are these drums at Area G?

These FTWCs were packaged at LANL’s Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility (WETF) in 2007 and sent to Area G for permanent disposal.

During an audit of containers, NA-LA identified a small amount of lead in the materials inside the FTWCs, resulting in the containers being designated as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and requiring offsite disposal. Further analysis identified the potential for a flammable, pressurized mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in the FTWC headspace, requiring venting of headspace gases to enable personnel to safely move the containers.

Laboratory engineers have done a careful analysis of the venting process to ensure that any releases are carefully controlled. The system pictured here, has been specifically engineered to capture the form of tritium expected in the FTWC headspace.

Q. Why is venting necessary?

The Laboratory has a goal of reducing the volume of waste on site. As part of this effort, the four FTWCs were identified for treatment on site and eventual shipment to a licensed off-site facility. Before the containers are moved to the Weapons Engineering Treatment Facility (WETF), pressure built up inside must be relieved. Once the pressure is relieved, the containers will be transported to WETF for further treatment prior to shipment to a licensed off-site facility.

Q. Why are you doing this now?

NNSA is conducting these activities to support safe operations at LANL, including mitigating risks to the public and the environment, and to enable the disposition of radiological and hazardous waste as required by our permits and DOE Orders. These operations are being conducted in compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.

Q. When do you plan to vent the containers?

Venting of the drums was been postponed indefinitely due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. NA-LA and Triad are working with regulatory agencies to determine a revised schedule.

Q. Is there any danger to public health and safety?

No. Our engineers have a proven safe and effective method to vent the FTWCs under carefully controlled conditions. Additionally, only one container at a time will be vented, and the venting process will undergo real-time monitoring to ensure DOE and EPA requirements on radioactive dose limit are not exceeded. The operation will be conducted with the utmost considerations for safety to Laboratory employees, the public and the environment.

The ventilation system used is carefully monitored for contamination during assembly/ disassembly. These and other precautions are designed to prevent any on-site and off-site health impacts.

Q. How do you know venting is safe?

Laboratory engineers have done a careful analysis of the venting process to ensure that the release is controlled. The process has been tested at WETF and proven effective. This methodology has been evaluated and observed by representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who will be monitoring the effort. Additionally, strict limits have been placed on the amount of tritium that can be released and we will be monitoring closely to ensure those limits are not exceeded.

Throughout the process, Laboratory engineers will be carefully monitoring the amounts of tritium released. We have also developed a system to capture much of the gas while it is being released. Strict regulatory limits prevent releasing more than the amount allowed for each individual container. These precautions are designed to prevent any off-site health impacts.

Q. How many FTWCs will be vented?

There are four containers.

Q. What is the process?

Each of the four containers will be vented separately, one at a time, at TA-54, Area G. The venting process will allow the vast majority of the tritium to be captured through a dedicated filtering system designed for tritium capture. We also have a real time monitoring system integrated into the exhaust and emission system.

Q. Are there other ways to treat this waste that does not involve releases to the atmosphere?

No. NA-LA has been working with the regulators to determine the safest method to enable movement of these containers from TA-54 to WETF for further treatment and shipment to a licensed off-site disposal facility. WETF has all the appropriate infrastructure to safely manage tritium.

Q. Why not do the venting at WETF instead of Area G?

The purpose for the venting is to enable us to safely move the drums from Area G to WETF, where we have the appropriate infrastructure to further treat and safely manage tritium.

Q. What is the distance between Bldg. 1028 at TA-54, where the containers are stored, and the nearest neighbor in White Rock?

It is 2200 meters from Bldg. 1028 to the closest business or residence location in White Rock; about 1.3 miles.

In addition to the monitoring equipment we are using to measure the release, the Laboratory has four air monitors in White Rock to ensure that we track any radioactive particles that may reach the area. The data will be available in our annual emissions report to the Environmental Protection Agency and our Annual Site Environmental Review (ASER).

Q. How are emissions monitored and evaluated?

To predict the off-site dose consequences from these releases, we are using worst-case computer models to establish daily emissions limits. At the end of each day of operation, we recalculate this dose consequence using actual wind from that day. The process then repeats, using worst case modeling to ensure no limits are ever exceeded. This assures the protection of our personnel, the public, and the environment.

Q. Where are the relevant White Rock air monitors?

We have four monitors in White Rock; one at the bottom of Pajarito Road; they are also located at the old White Rock Fire Station (Rover & NM-4); at “Rocket Park”, and near Pajarito Acres (Monte Rey South & NM-4). These all measure airborne radioactive particulates and tritium oxide. The data will be available in our annual emissions report to the EPA and in our Annual Site Environmental Report.

Q. Can you confirm that the highest dose possible off-site is estimated at 20 millirem?

Yes. For EPA planning purposes, we modeled the entire contents of the four FTWC drums released to the air, using average wind conditions and no filtering system – this resulted in the 20 millirem off-site dose. In reality, we will not be venting the entire contents – just that fraction which is in the headspace of the four drums. The operations will take place in a slow, controlled manner, using filtration to remove as much tritium as possible.

NA-LA will monitor the releases to ensure we stay well below the EPA limit of 10 mrem per year. We will not conduct operations in adverse wind conditions.

NA-LA has developed plans to ensure that the 10 mrem level will not be reached by using emissions controls (filters) on the exhaust system and actively monitoring the emissions in real-time. Operations will not occur if the wind speed and direction are unfavorable.

Venting will be conducted in a controlled manner to enable monitoring and control of the pressure in a manner that maintains the safety of our personnel, the public and the environment.

Note: Background radiation dose in this part of Northern New Mexico is about 1 mrem per day or more – about 350-400 mrem per year. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act allow DOE facilities to emit radioactive material that could contribute up to 10 mrem per year above this background level. LANL’s emissions for the past several years have been a fraction of 1 mrem per year. For comparison, a cross country round-trip airplane flight results in about 3.7 mrem of radiation exposure.

Q. What agencies are overseeing this process?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for radiological air quality emissions, the New Mexico Environment Department for RCRA treatment, and federal regulators from the Department of Energy for radiological emissions.

Q. What happens to the four FTWCs when the venting is complete?

They will be safely transported to another location on-site at LANL where the contents will be repackaged into DOT-compliant containers and then shipped offsite to a licensed storage facility.