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

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

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.


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page