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WIPP waste fiasco could cost US$2 billion

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

An analysis by the Los Angeles Times finds that costs associated with the February 2014 explosion in the world's only deep underground repository for nuclear waste ‒ the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the U.S. state of New Mexico ‒ could total US$2 billion (€1.8b).1

The direct cost of the clean-up is now estimated at US$640 million (€573m), based on a contract modification made in July with contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership. The cost-plus contract leaves open the possibility of even higher costs as the clean-up continues and, as the LA Times notes, it does not include the complete replacement of the contaminated ventilation system (which failed after the February 2014 explosion) or any future costs of operating the repository longer than originally planned.

The lengthy closure following the explosion could result in operations extending for an additional seven years, at an additional cost of US$200 million (€180m) per year or US$1.4 billion (€1.25b) in total. Thus direct (clean-up) costs and indirect costs could exceed US$2 billion. And further costs are being incurred storing waste at other nuclear sites pending the re-opening of WIPP. Federal officials hope to resume limited operations at the WIPP repository by the end of this year, but full operations cannot resume until a new ventilation system is completed in about 2021.1

The US$2 billion figure is similar to the costs associated with the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. The clean-up of Three Mile Island was estimated to cost US$1 billion by 1993, or US$1.7 billion adjusted for inflation today.1

Yet another cost for the federal government was a US$74 million (€66m) settlement paid to the state of New Mexico in January 2016.2,3 The negotiated agreement relates to the 14 February 2014 explosion and a truck fire that took place nine days earlier. It sets out corrective actions that Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL ‒ the source of the waste drum that exploded) and WIPP must take to resolve permit violations.

The US$74 million settlement will be in lieu of fines imposed on the federal government by the state of New Mexico for the two incidents. The money will be used to improve roads in south-eastern New Mexico and around Los Alamos; to repair and improve water infrastructure in Los Alamos and improve regional water quality; to enhance training and capabilities of local emergency responders; to construct an offsite emergency operations center near WIPP; and to pay for independent, external triennial reviews of environmental regulatory compliance and operations at LANL and WIPP.2,3

Government Accountability Office report

Given that the February 2014 fire and explosion exposed multiple levels of mismanagement and slack regulation, it was no surprise that the immediate response to the incidents was problematic. Everything that was supposed to happen, didn't ‒ and everything that wasn't supposed to happen, did.4

And in light of the systemic problems with management and regulation, it is no surprise that clean-up operations over the past 2.5 years have been problematic. An August 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the federal Department of Energy (DOE) did not meet its initial cost and schedule estimates for restarting nuclear waste disposal operations at WIPP, resulting in a cost increase of about US$64 million (€57m) and a delay of nine months.5

Worse still, mismanagement of the clean-up has involved poor safety practices. The GAO report states:5

"In May 2015, a DOE assessment found that pressure to achieve the March 2016 deadline contributed to poor safety practices in WIPP recovery efforts.6 In July 2015, DOE announced that it experienced delays in implementing the project baseline, including delays related to procuring equipment and delays related to correcting deficiencies in safety practices. As a result of these delays, the department announced that it would revise the WIPP project management baseline with the goal of developing a more realistic schedule. ...

"Nonetheless, the department still faces challenges in completing the recovery. For example, in March 2016, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which oversees DOE's nuclear facilities such as WIPP, reported7 that DOE had made progress in revising its nuclear safety plans at WIPP but additional work remained to address safety concerns to prevent a recurrence of the February 2014 radiological accident."

Independent Office of Enterprise Assessments report

Last year, the DOE's Independent Office of Enterprise Assessments released a report that found that WIPP clean-up operations were being rushed to meet the scheduled reopening date and this pressure was contributing to poor safety practices.6

The report states: "The EA analysis considered operational events and reviews conducted during May 2014 through May 2015 and identified a significant negative trend in performance of work. During this period, strong and unrealistic schedule pressures on the workforce contributed to poor safety performance and incidents during that time are indicators of the potential for a future serious safety incident."

The report points to "serious issues in conduct of operations, job hazard analysis, and safety basis."

Specific problems identified in the report include:

  • workers incorrectly changing filters resulting in five safety violations;
  • waste oil left underground for an extended period despite a renewed emphasis on combustible load reduction;
  • fire water lines inadequately protected against freezing;
  • inadequate processes leading a small fire underground, followed by the failure of workers and their supervisor to report the fire;
  • an operator improperly leaving a trainee to operate a waste hoist, the hoist being improperly used, tripping a safety relay and shutting down the hoist for hours;
  • an engineer violating two safety postings to remove a waste hoist safety guard;
  • workers removing a grating to an underground tank and not posting a barricade, causing a fall hazard;
  • a backlog of hundreds of preventive maintenance items; and
  • failing to properly track overtime such that "personnel may be working past the point of safety".

The Office of Enterprise Assessments' report concludes: "The issues discussed above could be leading indicators of a potentially serious incident in the future. Many more issues involving conduct of operations, maintenance, and inadequate controls also raise concerns about the possibility of a serious incident."

Earlier this year, clean-up work in two underground areas was suspended for one month due to poor air quality. Work was stopped on February 22 after equipment detected elevated levels of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.8

Radioactive contamination of the underground remains a problem, albeit the case that the size of the restricted area has been significantly reduced. "The facility was never designed to operate in a contaminated state," said Don Hancock from the Southwest Research and Information Center. "It was supposed to open clean and stay clean, but now it will have to operate dirty. Nobody at the Energy Department wants to consider the potential that it isn't fixable."1

Los Alamos National Laboratory at fault as well

While a number of reports have exposed problems at WIPP, others have exposed serious problems at LANL. An April 2015 report by DOE's Accident Investigation Board (AIB) concluded that a culture of lax oversight and inadequate safety protocols and training at LANL led to the February 2014 explosion at WIPP.9

"If LANL had adequately developed and implemented repackaging and treatment procedures that incorporated suitable hazard controls and included a rigorous review and approval process, the [February 2014] release would have been preventable," the AIB report states.

"The ineffectiveness and weaknesses in the oversight activities were at all levels," said Ted Wyka, the DOE safety expert who led the investigation.10

The AIB report points to the failure of LANL to effectively review and control waste packaging, train contractors and identify weaknesses in waste handling. The board also found that LANL, contractor EnergySolutions and the National Nuclear Security Administration office at LANL failed to ensure that a strong safety culture existed at the lab.

The AIB found that workers did not feel comfortable raising safety issues and felt pressured to "get it done at all costs." LANL employees also raised concerns that workers were brought in with little or no experience and rushed through an inadequate training program. "As a result," the AIB report states, "there was a failure to adequately resolve employee concerns which could have identified the generation of non compliant waste prior to shipment" to WIPP.

The immediate cause of the 14 February 2014 explosion ‒ mixing nitrate wastes with an organic absorbent (kitty litter) ‒ was recognized as a potential problem in 2012, if not before. One worker told the AIB that when concerns were raised over the use of organic kitty litter as an absorbent, the employee was told to "focus on their area of expertise and not to worry about the other areas of the procedure."

Workers noticed foaming chemicals and orange smoke rising from containers of nuclear waste at LANL, but supervisors told them to "simply wait out the reaction and return to work once the foaming ceased and the smoke subsided," the AIB report states.

"Lessons were not learned," the report states.

No doubt some lessons have been learned as a result of the underground explosion at WIPP. But Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group points to a problem that is likely to recur. LANL receives bonuses from the DOE for meeting goals such as removing nuclear waste by a certain deadline. That deadline pressure was very much in evidence at LANL in the lead-up to the WIPP accident and it will likely weaken safety practices in future. "You can't just say everyone has to try harder," Mello said. "Mixing profit, deadlines and dangerous radioactive waste is incompatible."11

A February 2016 report from the DOE's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was equally scathing of LANL.12 "Overall, we found LANL's corrective action program did not always adequately address issues, did not effectively prevent their recurrence, and did not consistently identify systemic problems," the report said. OIG auditors reviewed 460 issues cited between January 2009 and February 2014, and found "significant weaknesses" in the lab's ability to analyze and document the root causes of problems ‒ some of them significant health and safety issues ‒ and find solutions.

LANL managers said they agreed with the OIG findings and were working to resolve problems. "The Laboratory is working closely with National Nuclear Safety Administration to address the findings of the audit report," LANL said in a statement.13

But the National Nuclear Safety Administration ‒ a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE ‒ is itself a big part of the problem of systemic mismanagement of nuclear sites.

National Nuclear Security Administration

A June 2015 Government Accountability Office report strongly criticized the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) oversight of contractors who manage the nation's nuclear weapons facilities.14 The report points to a litany of ongoing failures to properly oversee private contractors at eight nuclear sites, including those managing LANL. The report found that the NNSA lacked enough qualified staff members to oversee contractors, and it lacked guidelines for evaluating its contractors.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported:15

"The GAO, which investigates federal agencies as requested by Congress, said the NNSA shortcomings stem from a 4-year-old experiment in reducing "overly prescriptive and burdensome" federal oversight of contractors by letting the private companies self-report their problems. NNSA staff told the GAO, however, that contractors aren't always as self-critical as they need to be in assessing their own performance.

"The so-called "contractor assurance system" isn't convincing the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that the management of the nation's nuclear facilities is improving. Committee leaders from both major political parties pointed to a leaking container of radioactive waste from Los Alamos that shut down a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad last year as one of the incidents that prove the NNSA and the Department of Energy have a long way to go in improving oversight of private contractors.

""For nearly two decades, this committee has uncovered management challenges facing the DOE complex involving contractor oversight. For the past five years, DOE has experimented with a new approach to contractor oversight that is not ready for prime time," committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said in a statement. "We saw the results of this experiment at the Y-12 security breach in Tennessee three years ago and more recently in oversight failures that led to a costly incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site.""

Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group was blunt in his criticism of the NNSA: "An agency that is more than 90 percent privatized, with barely enough federal employees to sign the checks and answer the phones, is never going to be able to properly oversee billion-dollar nuclear facilities of vast complexity and danger."15


1. Ralph Vartabedian, 24 Aug 2016, 'Nuclear accident in New Mexico ranks among the costliest in U.S. history',

2. Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board, 29 Jan 2016, 'Editorial: WIPP deal puts feds on notice, cash in NM',

3. WNN, 1 May 2015, 'Settlement agreed for WIPP incidents',

4. 20 Nov 2014, 'WIPP waste accident a 'horrific comedy of errors'', Nuclear Monitor #794,

5. Government Accountability Office, Aug 2016, 'Nuclear Waste: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Demonstrates Cost and Schedule Requirements Needed for DOE Cleanup Operations',

6. Department of Energy, Independent Office of Enterprise Assessments, 2015, 'Office of Enterprise Assessments Operational Analysis of Safety Trends at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, May 2014 ‒ May 2015',

7. Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, March 2016, 'Staff Issue Report: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Documented Safety Analysis'.

8. 28 March 2016, 'Officials resume work at nuclear dump after safety pause',

9. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, April 2015, 'Accident Investigation Report Phase 2: Radiological Release Event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, February 14, 2014',

10. Patrick Malone, 23 April 2015, 'WIPP investigator can't rule out more leaks',

11. Staci Matlock, 16 April 2015, 'Federal probe blames WIPP leak on LANL practices, bad chemical mix',

12. Department of Energy, Office of the Inspector General, Feb. 2016, 'Audit Report: Issues Management at the Los Alamos National Laboratory',

13. Staci Matlock, 1 March 2016, 'Federal audit finds more management problems at LANL',

14. Government Accountability Office, June 2015, 'National Nuclear Security Administration: Actions Needed to Clarify Use of Contractor Assurance Systems for Oversight and Performance Evaluation',

15. Staci Matlock, 10 June 2015, 'Report blasts oversight of nuke lab contractors',