AP Photo
A worker drives an electric cart past air monitoring equipment inside a storage room of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. , shown in this undated photo.

WIPP Radiation Leak Study Released; DOE Finds Probable Cause

Alex Jacobs

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.

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.


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