What’s Wrong with WIPP

By DON HANCOCK, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC)

The world’s first geologic repository for military nuclear waste is making international news because of the radiation leak that was detected late at night on Valentine’s Day. An unknown amount of radioactive and toxic chemical waste was released to the environment from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). On February 26, the 13 workers at the site when the leak was detected were notified that they tested positive for internal radiation contamination.

Since the Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the operating contractor, have repeatedly stated that WIPP would “start clean, stay clean” and not release any radioactivity for at least 10,000 years, the leak was never supposed to happen. The health danger that persists for thousands of generations is the reason to put the wastes underground so they are not released to the environment. Thus, an obvious question: What’s wrong with WIPP?

Also, what effect does the leak have on DOE plans to expand WIPP and what is the opposition to such proposals?

Some of the unknowns about the February 2014 radiation leak
As of March 4, there is much more that is unknown than known:
* What caused the leak?
* How much leaked into the underground salt mine?
* How much leaked into the environment?
* Where are those radioactive and toxic wastes now?
* To what amount of radiation were the workers exposed?
* What are the health effects for those workers?
* What decontamination is necessary in the underground mine?
* What decontamination is necessary on the WIPP site and surrounding area?
* If WIPP reopens, what changes in the operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented?

DOE, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), and regulatory agencies — New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — should be releasing more information to begin answering these and other questions. On-going monitoring and the time — days to weeks — it takes to obtain the results from laboratories means that substantial information about some of these questions will likely require at least months of data collecting and analysis.

But it is likely that for at least some of the questions, precise information will never be available.  For example, how much leaked into the environment may be only approximately determined. Although computer air dispersion models will be used to estimate the amount released, where those contaminants are is unknowable, since the wind can widely disperse the particles of plutonium (Pu)-239 and americium (Am)-241that were detected. What precise health effects will occur in workers and others is also unknowable. But health dangers exist for a very long time, since Am-241 has a half-life of 432 years (half of the current radioactivity will be present in that many years), and Pu-239 has more than a 24,000-year half-life.

(It is also true that many places have some levels of Pu-239 and Am-241 from the fallout of nuclear weapons that were exploded above ground between 1945 and 1980, after which all nations stopped that destructive practice—until North Korea’s more recent bomb tests. The radioactivity from that fallout is many times higher than what so far has been detected from the WIPP leak.)

What is known about the radiation leak with some confidence
The underground continuous air monitoring at panel 7 detected radiation at about 11:30 pm on Friday, February 14, when no workers were underground. Such detection causes the air ventilation to switch to the High-Energy Particulate Absorption (HEPA) filters, which are designed to capture 99.97 percent of the radiation. If the leak came from panel 7, it could be from one or more of the 258 contact-handled (CH) waste containers, containing 388 cubic meters that were emplaced between January 25 and February 5. Eighteen canisters, containing 16 cubic meters of more highly radioactive remote-handled (RH) waste, had been put into that panel starting in late September 2013. For comparison, there are approximately 170,000 containers with about 90,000 cubic meters of waste in panels 1 through 6.

WIPP underground copy

On the morning of February 15, additional workers were allowed to come to the site. That afternoon DOE stated: “No personnel contamination has been identified.” At 9:17 that night, DOE further stated: “Multiple perimeter monitors at the WIPP boundary have confirmed there is no danger to human health or the environment. No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities.”

On the evening of February 16, DOE stated: “No surface contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel or facilities. DOE emphasizes there is no danger to human health or the environment. WIPP’s system of air monitors and protective filtration system continue to
function as designed.”  The Joint Information Center was deactivated, since the incident was presumed to be terminated.

On February 19, CEMRC, a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University that is funded by DOE, provided the first public information that radioactive waste was released and escaped into the environment. Analysis of CEMRC’s air monitoring station #107, approximately 3,000 feet northwest of the WIPP exhaust shaft, showed levels of Am-241 and Pu-239+240 that were deposited between February 11 and 16. The next analysis from that station’s air filters showed no detectible levels of plutonium and that americium was approximately 100 times less than the previous sample. But that americium level was still about 10 times higher than the highest measurements detected before February 14. The radionuclides traveled more than a mile and a half from the assumed point of release, through the WIPP underground, up the exhaust shaft, to station #107.

On February 26, the 13 WIPP employees who had been on the surface when the radiation was detected were notified that they tested positive for internal radiological contamination, “predominantly americium-241.” These workers will have additional bioassay (urine and fecal) analyses conducted. On Thursday, February 27, Farok Sharif, Nuclear Waste Partnership President, stated that other workers who came onsite on February 15 are having bioassay testing, and some additional workers are requesting to be tested. All workers who want to be tested will be tested. All workers who want to have lung and whole body counts at CEMRC also will be allowed to do so. Laboratory analysis of bioassay samples takes one to two weeks. Sharif also stated that no workers have received chelating drugs that could help excrete the internal contamination.

CEMRC’s analysis of its air monitoring station 327 feet from the WIPP exhaust shaft showed that sampling from February 11-18 found levels of Pu-239 and Pu-240 and Am-241 at about double the levels found in the initial station #107 samples. CEMRC has other samples from the HEPA filters and other locations that are being analyzed. In the future, it may collect soil samples.

DOE states that it has done hundreds of air, soil, and water samples since February 14, but most of the laboratory analysis has not yet been released. NMED’s DOE Oversight Bureau had done air, soil, and water sampling for more than 20 years, but stopped sampling in 2013. On February 27, Senators Udall and Heinrich requested that EPA conduct monitoring at WIPP.

What happens now
DOE is reviewing the contractor “recovery plan.” The aspects of the plan that have been made public state that probes would be sent down two of the four shafts to check air quality in the mine. A few workers would then go underground with protective clothing and detection equipment, including cameras, to survey the underground mine to determine the cause and extent of the release. Further details would then be developed as to what actions should be taken to put WIPP back into operation.

There are numerous provisions of the NMED WIPP permit that give the state the authority to require action and impose fines and penalties for violations. On February 26, DOE requested relief from a number of provisions of the permit, including, among other things, extending for 30 days (to 60 days) the amount of time that containers may be stored in the Parking Area, extending for 60 days (to 105 days) the time that waste may be stored in the Waste Handling Building (WHB), and allowing up to 200 cubic meters of waste that could be created from decontaminating the underground and stored in the remote handled bay. On February 27, NMED issued a Compliance Order granting the requests, mandating weekly reports to NMED about the status of the facility and stating: “Under no circumstances will the Permittees commence normal operating status without prior inspection and approval of the Department.”

EPA has not yet stated what actions it will require as part of the recovery, nor what approvals it must give to allow reopening of the facility. DOE has not determined what financial penalties it will impose on NWP for not meeting contract requirements to dispose at least 4,000 cubic meters of waste during this fiscal year (October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014), among other requirements.

What information will be made public, and when, has not been announced. On March 3, U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, whose district includes WIPP, reported that he had spoken with DOE Secretary Moniz on February 27 about “the concern I share with the surrounding communities that the Department had not been providing sufficient information.” As a result, Rep. Pearce expected that more information would be distributed to the Carlsbad community.

Results of soil sampling could help determine how far the radionuclides released from the underground have traveled. Workers on any of the more than 100 oil and gas wells within one mile of the WIPP site boundary on February 14 and 15 could be the first non-WIPP workers in the path of any release.

What is happening with WIPP expansion proposals?
A year ago, La Jicarita published an article (https://lajicarita.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/wipp-expanding-threat-to-public-health/) that focused on five proposals to expand WIPP that were then being proposed by DOE in four separate environmental impact statements (EIS) and a modification to the NMED permit. No final record of decision has been issued in any of these four documents.

The modification proposal to the NMED permit was to put some remote handled waste in lead shielded containers and transport, receive, and emplace it underground as if it were contact handled waste. In September 2013, DOE made one shipment of RH waste in lead shielded containers to WIPP from the Argonne National Laboratory, located near Chicago, IL. The DOE Inspector General issued a report in May 2013 acknowledging that WIPP has a severe lack of capacity for RH waste and stated that “based on previous production costs of shielded containers, we estimate the cost to manufacture enough shielded containers for the potentially qualifying RH inventory to be more than $200 million which, given the current budget situation, may be cost-prohibitive.” The Southwest Research and Information Center and Elizabeth Richards’ appeal of the NMED permit decision to allow use of shielded containers is pending before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

WIPP salt beds. Wikimedia Commons
WIPP salt beds. Wikimedia Commons

Another activity at WIPP that DOE and its contractor have been pursuing is additional underground mining (the Salt Disposal Investigations (SDI) program), unrelated to defense transuranic waste. This mining would create small rooms in which heaters could be placed to try to dispute three decades long scientific views that salt is not a favorable disposal medium for thermally hot, highly radioactive waste. Transportation, storage or disposal of such high-level waste to WIPP is explicitly prohibited by federal law and the NMED Permit.

The Salt Disposal Investigations program also endangers the success of WIPP’s mission in three ways. First, given budget restrictions, either WIPP has more funding than it needs to afford the non-mission activity, or the funding for SDI is taking money needed for safe operations. Second, mining and hauling of salt poses direct risks to WIPP’s operations. On February 5, a fire caused by a diesel-fueled salt hauling vehicle forced evacuation of the 86 workers then in the underground, six of whom were treated for smoke inhalation at the Carlsbad Medical Center and four of whom remained under observation a week after being released. Investigation of the fire prevented additional waste handling at WIPP before the February 14 release.

Third, and most importantly, promoting SDI and other expansion proposals diverts management attention from a single focus on WIPP’s safety mission. The resulting distractions appear to have contributed to the declining safety culture at WIPP. Evidence of the lesser level of safety is demonstrated by the fire and radiation leak and resulting contamination of workers.

The future of expansion proposals
Some people in southeastern New Mexico have supported additional missions for WIPP for more than 35 years. More people from around the state have opposed any such expansions, and the opponents have so far prevailed. Thus, the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (Public Law 102-579, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on October 30, 1992) stands as the established four-part mission:
(1) safely operate WIPP to meet the “start clean, stay clean” standard for up to 6.2 million cubic feet of defense transuranic (TRU) waste; (2) safely transport the waste through more than 20 states without serious accidents or release of radioactive or hazardous contaminants; (3) meet commitments to clean up TRU waste at about 20 DOE nuclear weapons sites; and (4) safely close, decontaminate, and decommission the WIPP site, beginning in 2030 or sooner.

The radiation leak means that “start clean, stay clean” cannot be fully achieved. Moreover, more than 20,000 cubic meters (approximately 750,000 cubic feet) of design capacity in panels 1-6 was not filled and cannot store any more waste, meaning there is not enough space in the remaining panels to provide actual capacity for the legal limit.

The radiation leak also means that certain shipping commitments to WIPP cannot be met. The first deadline that will be missed is the commitment by DOE to Governor Martinez and NMED that 3,706 cubic meters of waste would be removed from above ground storage at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) by June 30, 2014. While 3,160 cubic meters was removed between October 1, 2012 and February 5, 2014, there is still 546 cubic meters of waste at LANL, requiring approximately 120 shipments to WIPP. DOE and LANL have yet to announce whether there are any viable alternatives other than leaving the waste in surface storage at LANL.

On February 14, some hours before the radiation leak was detected, NMED published a draft class 3 permit modification to allow WIPP to construct panels 9A and 10A at WIPP to expand the waste capacity by 25 percent, to eliminate the robust barriers previously required to close filled panels and replace them with sheet metal bulkheads, and to change the volatile organic compound monitoring methods in the underground. On February 28, 30 community groups from around the state requested that NMED Secretary Flynn withdraw the draft permit. They stated: “Those matters are complex and controversial at any time, but especially so given the radiation leak event and the many uncertainties that it raises about WIPP’s current performance and what permit requirements are needed to prevent any future event.” NMED has not yet responded to the letter.

Whether DOE will continue to promote WIPP for the expansions remains to be seen. However, since some people in southeastern New Mexico have promoted WIPP for other missions for more than 35 years, it seems likely they will continue such advocacy. The majority of New Mexicans who have succeeded in stopping such expansion proposals have even more reason to strongly oppose any such proposals.

DOE WIPP website special section on the radiation leak: http://www.wipp.energy.gov/Special/
CEMRC website: http://www.cemrc.org/
NMED WIPP website: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/wipp/index.html
EPA WIPP website: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/wipp/index.html
SRIC nuclear waste homepage: http://www.sric.org/nuclear/index.php



  1. Heads Up; hasn’t anyone heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences ? or for that matter Murphy’s Law; and that is if something can go wrong it will ! There is no such thing as clean safe Nuclear Energy PERIOD ! SO IF WE WANT TO CONTINUE TO TOY WITH OUR OWN DEMISE AND THAT OF THE PLANET ! ROLL THE DICE ONE MORE TIME BUT DO SNEAK OUT FOR A STIFF DRINK, AS IT MAY VERY WELL BE YOUR AND OUR LAST !!

  2. Forget the Anti-Coal dialogue, that is just side stepping the FACT that dealing with Nuclear Waste is the 800 pound gorilla that nobody, especially the nuclear Industry wants to discuss, because it makes using Nuclear far too costly!

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