Why do we still not know what’s wrong with WIPP?

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By DON HANCOCK, Southwest Research and Information Center

More than four months after a radiation leak was detected late at night on Valentine’s Day at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), most of the important things about what happened and future options are still unknown. Why is that? And is part of what’s wrong that the people and corporations that were in charge when the radiation leak occurred are still running things and being financially rewarded?

All of the major questions posed in the March 5 La Jicarita story are still unanswered:

* 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?

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the operating contractor, have decided that they do not need to know any more about the two questions related to workers. They determined that 22 workers have internal radiation contamination, but because they calculate that the dose was less than 10 millirem, no further testing and no medical treatment is necessary. They have concluded: “No adverse health consequences are expected as a result of this exposure.”

DOE and NWP also concluded that only a minimal amount of radioactive and toxic chemicals were released into the environment. They have increased environmental sampling and say that the air, soil, water, and vegetation sampling shows minimal or no contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had three air sampling stations in April and concluded:

“That the radiation releases do not pose public health concern. That DOE followed the procedures previously approved by EPA. That the WIPP facility remains in compliance with EPA regulations.”

The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), which first announced that its air sampling detected a release on the surface, continues sampling. The most recent air, water, and soil data now show virtually no detectable amounts of radioactivity away from the site. However, the current data show that there are increased amounts of radioactivity going into the environment as contaminated filters are being changed. Because of the contamination in the filters, workers changing them over at least a three-week time period must wear protective equipment, including self-breathing apparatus.


DOE and NWP state that they do not know what caused the leak. They now have pictures of a 55-gallon drum – LA00000068660 – that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) that is breached in Room 7 of Panel 7 in the WIPP underground. Whether that is the only leaking container is unknown, and additional underground investigations in July (and perhaps longer) will try to get pictures of as many containers as possible. Since the breached drum is located eight rows deep in the room, several containers would have to be moved in order to physically examine the leaker to try to determine what caused the explosion. Moving containers also releases some of the radioactivity on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the underground rooms. Thus, finding out what actually happened, at best, is difficult and dangerous.

Room 7 of Panel 7 will not be decontaminated; instead the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has ordered that it be sealed up. DOE’s draft closure plan states that would take many months to implement. But the limited sampling done in other parts of Panel 7 also shows substantial contamination. For example, Room 1 of Panel 7 behind a bulkhead that is more than 600 feet from the breached container has similar levels of contamination as Room 7.

Moreover, virtually none of the 3,000 feet of underground tunnels through which the leak traveled to get to the exhaust shaft and the surface has been tested, so the amount of contamination in the underground is unknown. While DOE has begun tests to decontaminate small amounts of salt taken from the site, no large-scale radiological cleanup of a salt mine has ever been accomplished. Therefore, how to decontaminate the mine, what to do with the resulting waste, how much it would cost, and how to protect workers doing the decontamination are among the unknowns.

However, DOE presumes that the ventilation system and the exhaust shaft are too contaminated to use in a re-opened facility. On June 18, the House Appropriations Committee approved $20 million dollars in the Fiscal Year 2015 funding bill to serve as a down payment for new ventilation and a new exhaust shaft. DOE has not made public any plan or cost estimate for such new construction. Of course, DOE has a long history of underestimating costs and timeframes to implement such expensive projects.

Congress also is considering a more than $100 million increase in funding for WIPP next year. DOE’s draft organizational changes would increase the number of its employees at WIPP from 55 to 77 – a 40 percent increase. Much of the increased funding also would presumably go to NWP, which has a contract to operate WIPP through September 30, 2017, with a 5-year renewal option.

NWP is contractually required to operate WIPP safely. DOE continues to pay more than $100 million a year to NWP, even though the site is shut down for waste operations and the facility is not safe to operate. When the corporation cannot operate the facility safely, as demonstrated by the underground fire and radiation release, it has failed to meet the contract requirements. Why should the corporation be expected to successfully decontaminate the site and then operate it without further accidents and releases? What’s the incentive to operate the facility safely when the corporation receives more money for not handling waste and for having a contaminated site?

The release was never supposed to happen and procedures to determine what happened did not exist. Consequently, it is very difficult or impossible to determine exactly what happened and how much contamination was released. Further, DOE and NWP want to minimize the impacts of what happened but strongly advocate spending a lot of money on “recovery.”

Without knowing what happened, it is not possible to know that it cannot happen again – at WIPP, at LANL where waste remains and more is created each month, and at Waste Control Specialists (WCS). WCS is a low-level waste disposal site in west Texas that abuts the New Mexico state line near Eunice, where more than 100 waste containers similar to the one breached at WIPP were shipped from LANL for temporary storage until WIPP opens. Special handling and precautions have been required at WCS because of the dangers those containers pose.

What happened at WIPP was never supposed to occur; allowing DOE to investigate itself and NWP to operate WIPP with increased funding will not determine what happened and what needs to happen in the future. Nor should the public have confidence in what DOE and NWP decide, because of their inherent bias and desire for more money.

An independent investigation is needed. Such an investigation should try to determine the cause(s) of the radiation event, the potential for future events, the effects on worker health and safety, the impacts on public health and safety and public attitudes, and decontamination alternatives.

The independent investigation should be carried out by technical experts from New Mexico and across the nation who have diverse expertise in fields including earth sciences, engineering, environmental remediation, public policy, health and medicine. Many of the experts should be from academic and non-governmental organizations not funded by DOE in order to bring independent judgment and credibility.

The process should include review of DOE reports; data analysis; interviews with DOE, contractor, and independent officials; technical and public meetings; and an interim report and final report.

That investigation is necessary to understand what’s wrong with WIPP and to inform the needed public discussion about what happens in the future with that facility and with nuclear weapons waste that is stored at Los Alamos, Washington, Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee.


DOE WIPP website: http://www.wipp.energy.gov

CEMRC website: http://www.cemrc.org/

NMED special WIPP website: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/NMED/Issues/WIPP2014.html

EPA WIPP website: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/wipp/index.html

SRIC nuclear waste homepage: http://www.sric.org/nuclear/index.php