A 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 , 2014 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam. The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers.
The accident contaminated the nation’s only dump for nuclear weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation’s elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel. Six months after the accident, the exact chemical reaction that caused the drum to burst is still not understood. Indeed, the Energy Department has been unable to precisely identify the chemical composition of the waste in the drum, a serious error in a handling process that requires careful documentation and approval of every substance packaged for a nuclear dump….
The job of identifying the waste that is treated and prepared for burial will grow even more difficult in the years ahead when the Energy Department hopes to treat even more highly radioactive wastes now stored at nuclear processing sites across the country and transform them into glass that will be buried at future high-level dumps.
The accident at the facility near Carlsbad, N.M., known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closure that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule.
A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. Only nine days before the radiation release, a giant salt-hauling truck caught fire underground and burned for hours before anybody discovered it. The report found that “degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment.”
The 15-year-old plant, operated by a partnership led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., “does not have an effective nuclear safety program,” the investigation found.
The accident raises tough questions about the Energy Department’s ability to safely manage the nation’s stockpiles of deadly nuclear waste, a job that is already decades behind schedule and facing serious technical challenges.
“The accident was a horrific comedy of errors,” said James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. “This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll.”
There is no official estimate of the cost of the accident, but outside experts and a Times analysis indicate it could approach $1 billion, based on the WIPP’s annual budget; the need to decontaminate the facility; upgrades to safety that officials already have identified; and delays over the next decade in the nuclear weapons cleanup program.
The WIPP was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production into ancient salt deposits, which would eventually collapse and embed the radioactivity for at least 10,000 years. The dump was dug much like a conventional salt mine, but with a maze of rooms for the waste. It handles low- and medium-level radioactive materials known as transuranic waste, the artificial elements — mainly plutonium — created in the production of nuclear weapons. Until the Valentine’s Day disaster, it had been operating without significant problems for 15 years.
The plant’s ventilation and filtration system was supposed to have prevented any of the radioactive material from reaching the environment. But investigators discovered that the Energy Department never required the ventilation system to meet nuclear safety standards. When monitors detected radiation, dampers were supposed to route the ventilation air into filters to prevent any radioactivity from reaching the surface, but the dampers leaked and thousands of cubic feet of air bypassed filters….
The investigators are looking at a variety of materials that may have been added to the drum, including lead, tungsten, acid and even kitty litter as possible factors in the explosion…Robert Alvarez, a former assistant energy secretary and a recent critic of the department’s performance, said the risk of a radioactive release at the WIPP was supposed to be one event every 200,000 years, not one in 15 years. “This was a cardinal violation,” he said…
At the Idaho National Laboratory, there are concerns that the WIPP closure could prevent the Energy Department from fulfilling its legal agreement to remove all transuranic waste by 2018. Curt Fransen, chief of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said federal officials had begun discussing building new warehouses at the lab to store waste as a result of the WIPP accident.At Washington state’s Hanford Site, the WIPP closure may lead to additional delays in shipping out 8,841 drums, boxes and other containers of transuranic materials to the New Mexico plant, said Deborah Singleton of the state’s Department of Ecology.
By RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 23, 2104