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WIPP Radiation Leak Study Released; DOE Finds Probable Cause

Alex Jacobs reports on the problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive nuclear waste facility in New Mexico.
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On May 5, Department of Energy (DOE) crews discovered damaged bags of magnesium oxide on top of nuclear waste containers shipped from the Los Alamos Lab inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in the suspected area of the radiation leak.

The bags weigh about a ton each, are placed atop waste containers, and do not contain radioactive material themselves. Experts think that “untreated nitrate salts” on the waste containers may have created an “energetic chemical reaction” with other chemicals from the bags or on the containers. The bags were designed to last 10,000 years to help stop any radiation leak from the containers. The DOE said Thursday that the cause of the damaged bags in panel 7 of the repository is unknown. An inspection Wednesday showed no issues with the roof or the walls of the area in question. A bigger issue that will delay cleanup is that this shipment of waste containers came from the Los Alamos Lab, and the same Los Alamos shipments were re-directed to a facility in Andrews TX, which could create similar issues and a leak potential at Andrews.

The bags are used to absorb moisture and carbon dioxide in the repository, which stores transuranic defense waste in tunnels carved from a New Mexico salt formation. Crews are also cleaning soot from the 45-ton lift where a fire occurred, that will be needed for further recovery efforts underground.

A Damning DOE Assessment

Photo via The Union Forum

On April 24, DOE’s Accident Investigation Board released a report that cited the WIPP facility for “poor management, ineffective maintenance, lack of proper oversight and an eroding safety culture.” 21 workers were contaminated in the release on February 14 and the facility remains closed for shipments while WIPP and EPA teams try to find the source of the contamination and institute a clean-up plan.

RELATED: New Mexico, Same Old Story: Radiation Leaks and a "Manhattan" Project

The report states that it took 10 hours to respond to the initial emergency alarm, then a bypass in the filtration system allowed the radiation to escape above ground. “They failed to believe initial indications of the release,” said board chairman Ted Wyka. It also found that much of the operation failed to meet standards for a nuclear facility; a lack of proper safety training and emergency planning; lagging maintenance; and a lack of strategy for things like the placement of air monitors. Problems with oversight by the Department of Energy also were cited up the chain of command.

Too Much, Too Fast?

Bob McQuinn, who took over as head of the contractor that runs the plant shortly after the release, acknowledged mistakes by Nuclear Waste Partnership. He replaced former site manager Farok Sharif, who was demoted and is now in charge of making sure deliveries of transuranic waste get to other facilities -- like the one at Andrews, TX. Under Sharif, deliveries were upped from 2-3 a day to 20-30 a day. That seemed to occupy the WIPP staff and degrade their other duties and training. WIPP crews were not ready for the problems that followed and had to be trained to re-enter the salt bed a half mile below the surface. It took weeks for them to get ready, including training to walk in new radiation suits with breathing apparatus, before they were finally allowed to enter via the uncontaminated airshaft. This was a precaution, so that in case they found serious contamination they could escape more easily. No radiation was found in air and water samples all around the WIPP site and the Carlsbad community. They finally reached the edge of the contaminated area on April 18, had to stop to initiate new protocols with heavier radiation suits and used a video robot to view the area first. The suspect area is Panel 7, and they reached it on April 23. The damaged bags containing magnesium oxide appear to be the source but they still need to find when, why and how the bags were damaged.

Waste at the plant is stored in panels, which are a series of rooms cut out of underground salt beds. Five of those panels are full and have already been sealed. Panel 6 is full but has not yet been sealed. Panel 7 is the current active storage area, where contamination was found last week. There is previous video evidence of Panel 7 that shows loose ceiling anchor bolts, but they haven’t found any link to the damaged bags atop the containers yet.

This 2005 DOE photo shows sacks of magnesium oxide used in Panel 2 of WIPP. The caption provided at Wikimedia Commons reads, ''The red stands each hold five 4,200 pound supersacks of magnesium oxide (MgO), which is used to absorb water and moisture from the air."

WIPP is the federal government’s only permanent repository for transuranic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs. There are 22 nuclear facilities around the country that send their waste to WIPP. When all 1,070 workers get back to work inside the facility, they will face many more precautions and protocols, like wearing radiation suits, decontamination showers and more training. Walls and ceilings will be tested for plutonium and americium before all workers are allowed in. While no radiation has been found above ground, these two substances could be in in the dust and could be tracked around and inhaled, causing severe health issues.

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Los Alamos Nuke Waste Legacy Is an Issue

The Los Alamos Nuclear Lab (LANL) is already sending their waste temporarily to Andrews, TX. The Las Conchas Fire in 2011 came very close to the Los Alamos facility, where containers and drums of waste were stored outside. A viral video showed these containers in what looks like a parking lot area while flames burned around LANL. They are now required by law to move such containers before the New Mexico fire season starts.

LANL will not be able to clean up the “legacy waste” by the June 30 deadline, which is part of a consent decree signed between New Mexico and the US Department of Energy in 2005. This work has been complicated by federal funding cutbacks, a partial government shutdown, the closure of the WIPP nuclear waste facility and the discovery of more contamination. Legacy waste was generated by LANL from its nuclear weapons research programs between the mid-1940s and the 1990s. After 1970, most of the waste has been stored above and below ground at LANL at Technical Area 54, and that is the area the Los Conchas Fire endangered. Some of the LANL waste has been delivered to the Andrews TX facility but some do not meet the requirements of that facility. All this means that everything will have to be “rethought” and re-budgeted.

Poison in the Water

Chromium-VI, a known carcinogen (famously the target of activist Erin Brockovich) has been found in a plume of groundwater heading for San Idelfonso Pueblo and the Rio Grande.

Highly explosive chemicals have been also found in groundwater. New Mexico Environment Department Head Ryan Flynn told all this to a gathering of elected officials at a meeting of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities on April 25.

LANL received $180 million for the cleanup last year and the LANL director said he is requesting $225 million this year and that $255 million was reasonable. They have to convince lawmakers to approve the funding or face the costs of a slower cleanup and the issue of the migration of the underwater toxic plume.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn gave a fiery speech about the DOE's latest theory of what caused the accident in Panel 7 at the end of the weekly WIPP town hall meeting in Carlsbad. Flynn called for the immediate closure of all waste panels except Panel 7 at WIPP, as well as complete public transparency. "I agree that these panels need to be closed and they need to be closed immediately," Flynn said.

The DOE halted shipments of nuclear waste containers from LANL to the Waste Control Specialists private facility in Andrews County, Texas last week after investigators narrowed the likely cause to the waste makeup from LANL.

The waste with nitrate salt matched waste stored in drums that originated from three separate waste streams: two of the waste streams originated from LANL and the source of the other was unknown because DOE and NWP refused to name the source. WIPP has stored waste streams from LANL, Savannah River, and Idaho National Laboratory in the past.

Alex Jacobs

May 9, 2014

Santa Fe NM

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a poet and visual artist based in Santa Fe.