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Fire and leaks at the world's only deep geological waste repository

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The problem of radiation leaks at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA − the only operating deep geologic disposal repository for nuclear waste in the world − has worsened since we reported on it in Nuclear Monitor #781.1

Waste barrels at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) were packed with nitrate salts and organic kitty litter different from the clay-based kitty litter previously used. It is believed the combination of materials set off a heat-generating chemical reaction that caused at least one such barrel inside the WIPP repository to fail, releasing radiation into the environment on February 14 and subjecting 22 workers to internal radiation contamination.2 That was followed by a second, smaller radiation release on March 11.3

The number and location of vulnerable waste drums is unclear. More than 500 drums may be at risk. Up to 368 vulnerable drums are at WIPP; 57 at LANL; more than 100 at a temporary site in Andrews, west Texas used as a storage site since WIPP was closed in February; and some vulnerable drums may also be located LANL's northern New Mexico campus.4

New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary Ryan Flynn issued an order on May 19 giving LANL two days to submit a plan for securing waste containers stored at LANL, LANL's northern New Mexico campus, and Andrews.5

Flynn said: "Based on the evidence presented to NMED, the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers at LANL may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment."6

LANL said it has taken a series of measures including packing the drums into special containers, moving them under a dome with a fire protection system, and monitoring the drums for any rise in temperature.

Flynn also ordered the US Department of Energy (DOE), which operates WIPP, to submit schedules by May 30 for the expedited closure of two disposal vaults at WIPP that contain up to 368 containers of improperly packaged waste from LANL. However the DOE said it would take 100 work weeks − and possibly twice that long − to secure the vaults.7

Accident Investigation Board report

A DOE-appointed Accident Investigation Board released a report into the accidental radiation release on April 24.8

The Accident Investigation Board identified the "root cause" of the accident to be the many failings of Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the contractor that operates the WIPP site, and DOE's Carlsbad Field Office. The report criticises their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed / ineffective recognition and response to the release."

The Accident Investigation Board report concludes that the release of radioactive plutonium and americium was "preventable", and that "a thorough and conservatively considered hazard analysis, coupled with a robust, tested and well maintained HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filter capable exhaust ventilation system could have prevented the unfiltered above ground release that occurred on February 14, 2014."

The Accident Investigation Board identified eight "contributing causes":

1. Implementation of the NWP Conduct of Operations Program is not fully compliant with DOE's Conduct of Operations and this impacted the identification of abnormal conditions and timely response.

2. NWP does not have an effective Radiation Protection Program, including but not limited to radiological control technician training, qualification and requalification, equipment and instrumentation, and audits.

3. NWP does not have an effective maintenance program. The condition of critical equipment and components, including continuous air monitors, ventilation dampers, fans, sensors, and the primary system status display were degraded to the point where the cumulative impact on overall operational readiness and safety was not recognized or understood.

4. NWP does not have an effective Nuclear Safety Program. There has been a reduction in the conservatism in the Documented Safety Analysis hazard / accident analysis and corresponding Technical Safety Requirement controls over time. For example, 15 of 22 design basis accidents were removed from the latest revision without any clear justification, including the elimination of a roof/rib fall event in an open waste panel.

5. NWP implementation of DOE's Comprehensive Emergency Management System was ineffective. Personnel did not adequately recognize, categorize, or classify the emergency and did not implement adequate protective actions in a timely manner.

6. The current site safety culture does not fully embrace and implement the principles of DOE's Integrated Safety Management Guide. There is a lack of a questioning attitude, reluctance to bring up and document issues, and an acceptance and normalization of degraded equipment and conditions. There is a reluctance to report issues to management, indicating a chilled work environment.

7. Oversight by DOE's Carlsbad Field Office was ineffective. DOE failed to establish and implement adequate line management oversight programs and processes and hold personnel accountable.

8. DOE Headquarters line management oversight was ineffective. DOE Headquarters failed to ensure that the Carlsbad Field Office was held accountable for correcting repeated identified issues involving radiological protection, nuclear safety, Integrated Safety Management, maintenance, emergency management, work planning, and control and oversight.

The radiation leak at WIPP may never have happened had the government not disbanded an independent scientific body charged with oversight of the facility. Until 2004, oversight was provided by the independent Environmental Evaluation Group, a scientific body set up in 1978. But in 2004, with WIPP by then fully operational, the Environmental Evaluation Group was defunded and disbanded.9

February 5 fire

The February 14 leak came just nine days after a truck hauling salt caught fire at WIPP. The fire consumed the driver's compartment and the truck's large front tires. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated.

A March 2014 report by the DOE's Accident Investigation Board identified the root cause of the fire as NWP's "failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground. This includes recognition and removal of the buildup of combustibles through inspections, and periodic preventative maintenance, e.g., cleaning and the decision to deactivate the automatic onboard fire suppression system."10

The report lists 10 contributing causes:

1. The preventative and corrective maintenance program did not prevent or correct the buildup of combustible fluids on the salt truck.

2. The fire protection program was less than adequate and there was also an accumulation of combustible materials in the underground in quantities that exceeded the limits specified in the Fire Hazard Analysis.

3. The training and qualification of the operator was inadequate to ensure proper response to a vehicle fire. He did not initially notify the Central Monitoring Room that there was a fire or describe the fire's location.

4. The Central Monitoring Room response to the fire, including evaluation and protective actions, was less than adequate.

5. Elements of the emergency preparedness and response program were ineffective.

6. A nuclear versus mine culture exists where there are significant differences in the maintenance of waste-handling versus non-waste-handling equipment.

7. The NWP Contractor Assurance System was ineffective in identifying the conditions and maintenance program inadequacies associated with the root cause of the fire.

8. DOE Carlsbad Field Office was ineffective in implementing line management oversight programs.

9. Repeat deficiencies were identified in DOE and external agencies assessments, e.g., Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board emergency management, fire protection, maintenance, Carlsbad Field Office oversight, and work planning and control, but were allowed to remain unresolved for extended periods of time without ensuring effective site response.

10. There are elements of the Conduct of Operations program that demonstrate a lack of rigor and discipline commensurate with the operation of a Hazard Category 2 Facility.

In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP "does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations."11

The future of WIPP

Full operations at WIPP will not resume for at least 18 months; perhaps as long as three years.12

On March 21, the New Mexico state government withdrew a temporary permit allowing progress towards two new disposal vaults at WIPP.13

Another activity at WIPP that DOE and a contractor have been developing is the Salt Disposal Investigations program. This program would create underground rooms in which heaters would be placed to assess whether or not salt is a favourable disposal medium for hot, high-level nuclear waste.14 Disposal of such waste at WIPP is legally prohibited at present but there has been a growing lobby to dispose of high-level waste from power reactors at WIPP in the wake of the failed Yucca Mountain saga. The Salt Disposal Investigations program may proceed but the likelihood of WIPP becoming a high-level nuclear waste repository is vanishingly small as a result of the fire and leaks earlier this year and the broader patterns of systemic mismanagement and slack regulation.

The 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act mandates the closure of WIPP in 2030 or sooner, and that would seem a more likely outcome than expansion.

Here are just some of the reasons that the government agencies and private contractors involved in WIPP might have considered taking their responsibilities seriously:

* protecting the health of workers and the public;

* private contractors profit when WIPP operates smoothly;

* politicians and bureaucrats stay out of trouble when WIPP operates smoothly; and

* plans to upgrade and extend the lifespan of WIPP are much more viable if WIPP runs smoothly.

But most government agencies and private contractors have taken a different approach: sloppy management and slack regulation. The WIPP problems will have major knock-on effects in the US − and to some extent globally − and those responsible have only themselves to blame.
















More information:

Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC):

SRIC May 26 report:



Carlsbad Environment Monitoring & Research Center − New Mexico State University:

New Mexico Environment Department:

Robert Alvarez, 23 March 2014, 'The WIPP problem, and what it means for defense nuclear waste disposal',

(Written by Nuclear Monitor editor Jim Green.)

From WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #787, 6 June 2014

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