As the Department of Energy challenges the fines levied against it by New Mexico, new revelations are coming to light on safety lapses and a delay in reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), closed since a radiation leak compromised the nation’s only underground disposal facility for Cold War–related nuclear waste last February.
Originally scheduled to reopen in 2016, the site will be unable to take new shipments of waste until at least 2018, said the Energy Department and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor running the federal repository, last week. Limited operations can resume in 2016, the Associated Press reported on January 15, but officials said the facility needs a new ventilation system and exhaust shaft before it can accept new material. In fact, officials have not even been able to close a storage bunker that was affected by the leak, AP said, even though the deadline was January 1.
"The initial closure of Panel 6 was supposed to be one of the quick and easy things to be done,” said nuclear-waste watchdog Don Hancock to AP after a meeting in Carlsbad to discuss the cleanup efforts from the accident, in which a waste drum from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) that was stored underground ruptured and leaked, contaminating 22 workers and closing the facility. “It's not done. It's not quick. It's not easy. There are going to be risks to workers just to do that.”
The initial leak was followed by revelations that the WIPP and LANL had not followed their own safety precautions and rules, and then had covered up those very lapses. Along the way, kitty litter (organic versus inorganic) and a possible typo were highlighted as potential turning points in the chronicle of the leak.
He spoke after the Wednesday January 14 meeting between DOE officials, the contractor and others working on the cleanup.
“It’s more of a problem than they thought it would be because there’s a significant amount of contamination in the area,” said Hancock, who monitors WIPP for the Southwest Information and Research Center, a watchdog group, to the Santa Fe New Mexican. “They’re behind schedule on that, and they’re going to remain behind schedule.”
Now it has come to light that LANL had changed a procedure without first examining it for safety, the Albuquerque Journal reported on January 16. Moving the focus from whether organic or inorganic kitty litter should have been used in processing waste containing oxidizing nitrates (organic is one of the potential culprits in the explosion that caused the fire and subsequent leak), a December report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board indicates that nitrates should not have been part of the waste stream at all, with or without organic matter.
“Investigators believe the radiation leak at WIPP resulted when organic, wheat-based cat litter provided fuel for a chemical reaction with oxidizing nitrate salts that were part of the waste stream packaged at Los Alamos. The nitrates were left over from a process used to extract plutonium,” the Albuquerque Journal reported. “But the new disclosure is the first suggestion that oxidizing nitrates—even without the addition of organic material—should have been a cause for concern as waste was packaged for WIPP.”
On December 6 the New Mexico Environment Department fined LANL and the WIPP $54 million for the various breaches, with indications that more could follow, in the biggest civil penalty ever levied by state authorities against the federal government.
A month later, on January 8, the DOE filed a legal response challenging the fines, the Albuquerque Journalreported. The New Mexico Environment Department stood its ground on the fines—$36.6 million against Los Alamos and $17.7 million against WIPP.
The DOE disputes some of the state’s findings and said the fines were excessive, according to the newspaper. New Mexico’s environmental department said its conclusions were based on the DOE’s own data and that “we will not agree to back down on any of the problematic issues we identified in the compliance orders,” the Albuquerque Journal said.
The investigation and cleanup are ongoing.