WIPP: Reconsidering the ‘Impossible’

April 1st, 2014 · 1 Comment · environment

By Denise Tessier

Before the leak, a radiation incident at WIPP was considered virtually impossible. . .

That’s a line from the Journal’s March 27 editorial in which the Albuquerque Journal revealed a collective change of heart about the infallibility of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the only existing repository for the nation’s transuranic U.S. defense nuclear waste.

Apparently it took the “impossible” for this editorial change.

Which begs the question: Why consider a radiation leak impossible?

Taking every precaution is imperative when dealing with these highly toxic, long-lived wastes. But even if WIPP’s managers had maintained their initial safety culture and record – which, according to a report by federal investigators, had declined in recent years – to consider any leak “impossible” reflects an almost faith-based trust in WIPP.

The Albuquerque Journal has consistently been a booster of WIPP, even before the plant opened more than 15 years ago. Because of its economic benefits, bolstered by the safety record of its first decade or so, it also has enjoyed strong support from southern New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce and Carlsbad residents like Mayor Dale Janway.

The Valentine’s Day leak of radiation — revealed Feb. 19 during ongoing air sampling by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring Center at an exhaust shaft about a half mile from WIPP — led to closure of WIPP from further acceptance of waste, pending investigation. The Journal’s first editorial after the leak (Feb. 25) was headlined, “Base WIPP response on science, not emotions.”

Perhaps it was meant as a simple admonition against panic, but the headline and text in the editorial on which it was based employed an unfortunate choice of words. They were almost preemptive in intention, implying that those who might publicly express concern would be expressing emotion rather than rational thought.

At the same time, the text of the editorial agreed with the reaction of New Mexico’s newly appointed Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, who at a news conference, reported in the Journal Feb. 21, said, “Events like this simply should never occur. From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many.”

Flynn also said the Environment Department would take into account the radiation release – and a truck fire at WIPP that had occurred Feb. 5 – when evaluating future permit applications for expansion of WIPP or for acceptance of additional waste stream types.

Flynn’s role in writing copper industry regulations on water aside, his response to the WIPP leak as ED secretary was a welcome one. It reminded this reader of Robert Neill’s Environmental Evaluation Group in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, which, along with the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division, acted as watchdogs for the public when the federal government was proposing that New Mexico accept this waste. The EEG and EID provided a science-based foil for the anti-nuclear and the pro-nuclear groups that both sprang up then.

Three days after the Journal’s Feb. 25 editorial, it was revealed that 13 workers inhaled radiation above ground during the leak. Department of Energy officials issued a statement a few days later, reported by John Fleck on March 6, saying that a second round of tests showed none of the 13 were exposed to dangerous levels of plutonium or americium, the two elements detected in February.

But as WIPP critic Don Hancock of the Southwest Information and Research Center pointed out in Fleck’s story, urine tests would not detect whether the employees had radioactive lung exposure, a more pressing concern. During an interview with V.B. Price at New Mexico Mercury, Hancock also questioned who among those at the Department of Energy were medical experts, but said he’d received no answer.

Four days later, it was reported that four more workers had tested positive for exposure at WIPP. The levels were “barely detectable,” according to the story based on a DOE new release.

Still unknown was what caused the release, and Fleck wrote a story explaining various scenarios, including those considered in WIPP’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement from the 1990s. In this story, he interviewed Neill from the EEG, who said leaks were never supposed to happen. The story concluded with a New Mexico Environment Department legal notice, which said, “It is believed . . . that the WIPP will be unable to resume normal activities for a protracted period of time.”

In the Sunday Journal, March 16, staffer Lauren Villagran summarized the continuing support the town of Carlsbad has for WIPP, reporting that WIPP’s budget includes more than $45 million in salaries, which certainly bolsters the local business community. The story, “Carlsbad stands strong for WIPP,” also brought up the issue of clean-up: “With the investigation into the source and extent of the leak ongoing, it is not yet clear how much the cleanup will cost.”

In that same newspaper, the Journal Op-Ed Page carried a piece headlined, “Radiation levels after WIPP leak negligible,” which echoed the Journal’s Feb. 25 editorial with its message and subhead: “People should look to experts for good information rather than turning to fear and panic.” The expert in this case was the author of the piece, Robert Hayes, listed as a certified health physicist.  His column said:

The highest contamination levels predicted off-site right at the fence are so low, they are effectively identical to the values that were already there prior to building the WIPP due to global fallout from historical atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

And he added:

Fear has historically been one of the greatest dangers when it comes to any upset condition at a nuclear facility. The only deaths recorded from the very large radioactivity release from Fukushima were due to unnecessary evacuations resulting in deaths from clinical issues like accidents and hospital patients not receiving proper care during the move.

Full disclosure: I was at the WIPP site for two weeks after the event and have been keenly aware of all the radiation measurements, characterization and assessments that took place there. The event is truly an operational nightmare for a facility that had always prided itself on a stellar record of disciplined operations and excellence in mission execution.

Opposite that column, the Journal again weighed in on the incident with an editorial, which this time was headlined, “N.M. awaits answers for radiation leak at WIPP.”  This raised a question as to whether contingency plans were in place.

But its focus was more about the potential fallout in terms of whether WIPP would still be able to accept waste from agencies other than the DOE.

Keep in mind that when New Mexico agreed to take on the responsibility of storing federal nuclear defense waste for the rest of the nation, it did so after being promised that New Mexico would not be asked to take other types of waste – a promise that has been ignored as an inconvenient technicality every time yet another proposal is made for expansion.

In the interview with Price, Hancock said New Mexico has received no fewer than six proposals to expand the mission of WIPP – to include high-level waste, commercial and power plant waste and even non-nuclear things, like 10,000 metric tons of mercury.

In fact, Hancock suggested that the “declining safety culture” at WIPP partly could be blamed on management’s desire to increase the mission. Dealing with expansion proposals costs time and money, he said, to the point that some salt beds have been mined and installed with heaters specifically to demonstrate that salt beds are suitable for long-term storage of hotter radioactive wastes.

Again, New Mexico was promised that it would not have to take on such waste. The Journal’s March 16 editorial ignored this history, pointing out “WIPP’s importance to the nation and economic impact to the state,” its employment of about 1,200 people and its budget of $202 million. It then indirectly expressed its support for expansion, adding for good measure that:

WIPP doesn’t need the kind of over-the-top, choking and incredibly costly safety regulatory structure the National Nuclear Security Agency has brought to the national labs. …

The implausibility of this statement was noticed by Ernest Hardin of Corrales, who in a letter published in the Talk of the Town section March 25 wrote:

An effective nuclear safety culture is exactly what WIPP needs. The truck fire is indisputable evidence that a culture problem exists, and experience shows that such problems are not limited to the particular failure that brings them to light.

Saying he worked at the Yucca Mountain Project “many years,” he added:

Nuclear safety culture . . . is vital to all radioactive waste management facilities including the national labs. So please learn more about nuclear safety culture before editorializing. You might start with the documents provided by INPO, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations.

And that brings us to the March 27 editorial about the impossibility of a radiation incident – and to the Journal’s better grasp of the importance of maintaining a nuclear safety culture. As supporting evidence for its editorial position, it cited the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report that said WIPP was unprepared in its response to both the truck fire and the leak, and that an investigation of the truck fire turned up serious operational and safety problems.

The editorial again brought up the permitting of non-DOE waste at WIPP, and this time decided to support the Environment Department’s decision to hold off on expansion permits. From the editorial, “Holding off on WIPP permit changes is wise:”

Putting the permit modification on hold is the right call. It makes no sense to approve more nuclear waste for the repository when already approved WIPP shipments are on hold and no one knows what caused the radiation breach.
However, answers are needed soon to prevent a reoccurrence, and before WIPP reopens.

Still unclear is the extent of contamination, and how it is to be remediated. As Hancock pointed out in the Mercury interview, there is no history, anywhere in the world, of what to do in a situation like this.

The Journal would do well to keep the blinders off as new developments unfold.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Peter Neils

    While JournalWatch highlighted some glaring informational lapses in the Journal Editorials, as well as obvious bias, including lab-advocates’ complaints about the high cost of safety requirements at the national labs, it walked into its own propaganda mine-field by quoting Don Hancock of SRIC.

    Mr. Hancock’s portfolio as a citizen advocate includes oversight of WIPP, about which he occasionally opines, yet he was mute about the deficient safety atmosphere until after the truck fire and, as far as is now known, unrelated release on February 14th. As one who regularly reviews operational literature, it is curious that his posture has been reactive rather than proactive on the safety issue.

    A secondary interest of Mr. Hancock’s, about which he has also been mute, but which he quietly promotes through numerous shell organizations, is the consolidation of the entire US nuclear weapons complex in New Mexico and Amarillo, TX., reducing it from eight sites to just three, excluding WIPP.

    He asserts with absolutely no documentation, and JournalWatch walks right into his pitch, that the declining safety culture is somehow related to an effort to expand WIPP’s mission. He does not drawn a connection between those who advocate this and the people who operate the facility, nor the workers actually handling the waste day in and day out. It is counterintuitive that a facility seeking to expand its mission would intentionally become lax in its safety protocols. It is much more likely that the long period of uneventful operation led to a slow decline of vigorous oversight of protocols, than the intentional decline he implies.

    What we actual know is that while a small, but significant amount of Plutonium and Americium 241 particles were trapped by the ventilation system’s filters, the actual release into the atmosphere, based on on-site and near off-site monitors was hundreds of times below EPA action levels, in other words, the emergency filtration system activated and functioned as designed and prevented a significant release into the atmosphere.

    While the event revealed operational issues that should be addressed, it seems to have fallen far short of an American Chernobyl.

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