WIPP’s Past, Present and Future

Fire and radiation leak prompt safety concerns at New Mexico waste site

By Kira Trujillo

ALBUQUERQUE — February 4, 2014 will go down as an ominous day in the history of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, also known as WIPP. A fire followed by a radiation leak has kept WIPP shut down for more than three months.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, N.M., is the only underground transuranic waste burial site in the nation. The events that occurred on February 4 and afterward have left WIPP closed to further waste shipments with no set date to reopen. With fires, radiation leaks, and a Department of Energy (DOE) issued investigation, WIPP’s future is still uncertain.

A Look Back

From its birth to the fire in early February, 15 years had passed without any hiccup in WIPP’s system. The Waste Isolation Plant was somewhat of a test dummy for finding a geological disposal for waste leftover from nuclear defense projects.

The idea, in theory, is that salt beds that formed from seas millions of years ago can encase the waste and house it safely for millions of years to come.

The waste is stacked in containers inside football field long rooms and the waste, which gives off heat, attracts the moisture left in the salt which then forces the salt to close around it.

Although WIPP is the first U.S. geological waste repository site, it is not the first in the world to be used. Germany had two waste sites similar to WIPP that failed because of natural causes, the most significant being water damage.

The Incidents

It is not known if the fire and the leak have some sort of connection. However, what is known is that the fire could have been prevented, according to a Department of Energy (DOE) investigation. At 10:45 am a fire broke out in one of the underground transuranic waste rooms. A salt haul truck caught fire, which first engulfed the engine compartment in flames as well as the front tires, which is believed to be the cause of the black smoke. All the workers were evacuated, 6 were taken to Carlsbad Medical Center for smoke inhalation and another 7 workers were treated on-site.

Results of these findings prompted the removal of a contract manager. According to the report a facility shift manager instructed that the ventilation system to be switched to filtration, however it made things much worse and sent smoke into evacuation areas of the mine that had good air. The filtration of the smoke made visibility poor for those remaining workers still attempting to locate the waste hoist, which would take them above ground. The report stated that the root cause were “casual factors that, if corrected, would prevent recurrence of the same or similar accidents.”

The management and operations contractor was held responsible for not taking the necessary actions to ensure a safe work environment. Shortly after the fire, a radiation leak was discovered on February 14. The leak had contaminated 21 people and released minor amounts of radiation into the air near WIPP. The radiation was pumped from exhaust fans. Crews have since been able to descend into the mines and have discovered that the leak is more than likely coming from room 7.

Now that the crews believe to have found the origin of the leak the investigation board appointed by the DOE to look into both incidents has blamed the fire and leak on lack of oversight.

This is a map of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant taken from Google images. The rooms labelled 1-8 are meant to hold transuranic waste leftover from nuclear defense programs in the U.S. The crews determined that room 7 is where the leak originated, but have yet to determined how it happened.

The Watchdogs

The Southwest Research Information Center monitors DOE activities as one part of its mission “to promote the health of people and communities.” It’s been updating the public about WIPP via its website.

“…there are workers that are killing themselves there”

— Don Hancock

Don Hancock directs SRIC’s Nuclear Waste Safety Program. He says his group provides transparency where the DOE falls short — providing critical updates on the current situation at WIPP and links to important government documents that are open to the public but in some cases hard to find.

Hancock says he is neither for or against the DOE, he simply requires them to answer for their mistakes. One concern is how fast WIPP will reopen.

“We’re likely to have a fight. Typically these fights can play out in the court of public opinion, the court of law or the court of congress,” said Hancock.

Hancock’s organization believes that while the DOE is trying to do the right thing, they could be doing more. SRIC is pushing for things like help from an independent agency and also for the 21 workers who were exposed to be able to get another medical opinion outside of the medical care that the DOE is providing. Hancock states one of the DOE’s biggest transparency indiscretions during this incident is saying that there are no health impacts.

“They can’t know that so they shouldn’t be saying that,” said Hancock.

For More Information

U.S. Department of Energy WIPP Site
New Mexico Environment Department WIPP Site 
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency WIPP Site
Southwest Research and Information Center WIPP Site  

The Ultimate goal

Multiple theories have arisen as to what could have potentially caused the leak. One of the theories is that the leak is from a collapse in a ceiling of the salt mine.

When WIPP opened 15 years ago it was commissioned by the DOE to house transuranic waste in underground salt mines. The hope was that the salt mines would eventually collapse and trap all of the waste, however this was not supposed to happen for many years.

Prior to the mishaps, WIPP was projected to close sometime after 2030 but if the salt mines are already collapsing this could potentially affect WIPP’s future.

Another probable theory is a waste drum explosion. Inside waste drums are hazardous gases and material that have the potential to occasionally combust. The plant is required to build 12 foot thick blast proof walls around rooms that have been filled with waste and sealed off.

The amount of radiation that was released into the air was substantially small amount in comparison to even a chest x-ray. Regardless, the citizens of Carlsbad were immediately concerned and since then around 50 appointments for a full body radiation scans have been set up. This is nearly double the number of scans that WIPP averages per year for the public.

Reports says that crews investigating the damage in the mines discovered damage to bags that are used to keep radiation from leaking. The DOE said May 1 it still does not know the cause of the leak or what may have damaged the bags. The magnesium oxide bags weigh up to 4,200 pounds.

Although there have been many parties in WIPP the past 3 months, all seem to want to achieve the same thing, which is to find out why this happened and to make sure it never happens again.

As the leader in geological disposal, WIPP’s reopening is vital for the government to dispose of transuranic waste.

What the Future Holds For WIPP

As the source of the leak is understood, DOE has a long road ahead deciding how to proceed. It would take new congressional budget approval to go down into the mines and clean up all of the radiation that has leaked. Also DOE would have to decide how to go about cleaning the radiation that leaked outside of WIPP.

Don Hancock believes that if there is not a sure fire way of cleaning up the radiation and making sure it does not happen again workers should not be allowed to work whether they want to risk contamination or not.

“I call it the Fukushima effect, because there are workers that are killing themselves there,” said Hancock. “Some of them know it and some of them don’t know it but they are willing to do it for patriotic reasons or money.”

The Southwest Research Information Center states four things need to happen before WIPP can reopen its doors.

  • We need to know what happened
  • An independent entity, not the DOE, needs to come in and say this cannot and will not happen again
  • It needs to be cleaned up, both the underground and the surface
  • Lastly the 21 workers who were exposed need to have qualified medical treatment.

At this point WIPP houses 90,000 containers full of waste — a lot but not nearly the amount it was projected to hold when it opened.

* * *

Kira Trujillo is a journalism student at the University of New Mexico.

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