LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – A significant software improvement is leading to enhanced decision-making on environmental cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
Samples collected of soil, sediments, water and other parts of the environment potentially contaminated by historical LANL operations now receive faster and more comprehensive validation due to software tool improvements made by the EM Los Alamos Field Office’s cleanup contractor Newport News Nuclear BWXT-Los Alamos (N3B).
The improved software functionality is part of a database containing all data associated with environmental cleanup at LANL. N3B implements the legacy portion of that cleanup on behalf of EM. The legacy cleanup involves the remediation of contamination from nuclear weapons production and research during the Manhattan Project and Cold War era.
The software improvement ensures more thorough validation of results from third-party analytical laboratories that analyze collected samples for various contaminants, which may include metals, radionuclides, high explosives, and human-made chemicals used in industrial solvents, known as volatile organic compounds.
The types of contaminants potentially found in these samples, along with levels of contamination, guide N3B’s cleanup.
“Decisions on the legacy environmental cleanup are based on the validity and quality of this analytical data, including the nature and extent of contamination, how much we clean up, and how well the interim measure is working to mitigate migration of the hexavalent chromium groundwater plume,” said Sean Sandborgh, sample and data management director at N3B. “If you have lapses in the quality of analytical data, that could have negative effects on our program’s decision-making capacity.”
Hexavalent chromium was flushed into Sandia Canyon between 1956 and 1972, when LANL personnel used the contaminant as a corrosion inhibitor in the cooling towers of its non-nuclear power plant. During that timeframe, chromium was used industry-wide for such purposes.
Once N3B personnel collect samples from potentially contaminated sites, they send them to a third-party laboratory for analysis. When N3B receives the results of those samples, they perform a validation process to demonstrate data is of sufficient quality and supports defensible decision-making.
“Validation consists of determining the data quality and the extent to which external analytical laboratories accurately and completely reported all sample and quality control results,” Sandborgh said.
The process can catch data quality issues that may result from incorrect calibration of equipment in a laboratory or issues inherent in the samples, such as improper preservation or temperature control, that mask detection of contaminants.
With the improved functionality, more of the validation process is automated, instead of manually conducted, which means a lower likelihood of errors.
Another important improvement is the ability to evaluate sample results containing radioactive material at lower activity concentrations, which provides quick information on the potential for low levels of radionuclide activity.
The improved functionality is also being used by LANL’s management and operating contractor, Triad, and will soon be used by the New Mexico Environment Department Oversight Bureau.
The software improvement saved N3B 265 hours of labor and more than $25,000 in taxpayer dollars since its launch nearly one year ago.
“The quality and defensibility of environmental data generated from sampling activities is a key component of an effective remediation process,” Sandborgh said. “When the automated data review is used in conjunction with manual examination of sample data packages, we meet and exceed our data quality requirements.”
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