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Report: WIPP truck that caught fire old, not maintained

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The truck that caught fire a half mile underground at a southeastern New Mexico nuclear waste dump in early February was 29 years old, improperly maintained and operating without an automatic fire-suppression system, according to a report to be released today.

The report will also detail deficiencies in emergency training and responses at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad.

“It was preventable,” Ted Wyka, a Department of Energy official who led the investigation, told a community meeting on Thursday evening as he previewed the findings of the probe into the first of two back-to-back incidents at the federal government’s only permanent repository for waste from the nation’s nuclear bomb-building facilities.

An investigation of a radiation release nine days later that contaminated 17 workers is expected in a few weeks.

The report was previewed just hours after the contractor that runs the site said it has tapped a new president and project manager to lead the facility.

Bob McQuinn has been named to replace Farok Sharif as head of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, a division of San Francisco-based URS Corp. He will serve as president and project manager of NWP, while Sharif will shift to a role as project manager of the Transuranic Waste Program.

The shift in leadership comes as the company attempts to investigate and recover from two separate incidents last month at WIPP. The underground repository has been closed since early February due to the truck fire in an underground salt mine and the later radiation leak from the waste storage area.

“We are committed to returning WIPP to safe, compliant operations,” James Taylor, general manager of URS Global Management and Operations Services, said in a statement. “I am confident these structural realignments will strengthen our recovery efforts.”

URS also plans to announce a newly created position called WIPP recovery manager in the coming days. Sharif and the recovery manager will both report to McQuinn, URS said.

In the new role, Sharif will arrange to relocate waste to other locations while WIPP is not operational and work with other sites to develop plans to store it temporarily, URS said.

According to Sharif’s online biography, he is credited with helping WIPP ramp up the processing of waste deliveries from one or two per week to more than 30 shipments per week. Sharif, who has managed WIPP for seven years, previously served as president and general manager of Washington TRU Solutions, the contractor that ran WIPP before the contract was awarded to Nuclear Waste Partners.

URS said McQuinn’s experience includes 35 years working in Department of Energy nuclear and high-hazard operations, including six years in charge of nuclear operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

McQuinn is now in charge of company operations at WIPP and is expected to arrive in Carlsbad over the weekend.

Earlier this week, the Energy Department approved a Nuclear Waste Partnership plan to use all existing workers in the recovery effort, which could mean retraining many of them in response to new conditions underground or new policies and procedures going forward. About 1,000 people work at WIPP.

DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco said in an open letter posted Thursday that the team investigating the radiation leak is expected to complete its review by the end of the month.

Wyka said the investigation of the truck fire did not reveal exactly what sparked the blaze, but he said the old truck that was hauling salt had a buildup of oil and other combustible materials as well as active leaks.

The fire probably started about 30 minutes before the driver saw the orange glow from the engine compartment and jumped out to try to extinguish it, he said. But the automatic fire-suppression system that might have detected the heat earlier was not active, Wyka said, and the fire extinguisher the driver sprayed on the truck apparently didn’t work.

While Wyka praised the 86 workers who were underground when the fire started around 11 a.m. on Feb. 5 for their response, he said a number of systems failed. For example, he said emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes, the command-center response was lacking and the investigation showed emergency training drills were inadequate.

Six workers were treated for smoke inhalation after the fire.

“We were pretty lucky that day,” he said. “… Despite all the safety systems that sort of let them down, the workforce down in the mine that day was very calm, collected and in many ways heroic.”

Wyka said the workers “did everything they could” to notify colleagues to get out, even before the evacuation alarm sounded. “Some stayed behind to make sure everyone got in the elevator to get out.”

The biggest lesson, he said, is about the mindset at the site.

“This is not just a mine, not just an operating nuclear facility – this is both,” Wyka said, noting that trucks used in the part of the mine where waste is hauled are kept much cleaner than the old trucks used to haul salt in the tunnels. They also have active fire-suppression systems.

Franco choked up as he took the stand at the meeting, telling the community that at first he took the findings personally.

“It’s one of those things, being part of the family, one of those things that’s a little tough,” he said. “But I think what’s important (is) we definitely got away with not … having anyone seriously hurt. So we need to learn form that. It is what I wanted to hear, and I wanted the truth. We don’t need any sugar-coating.”

WIPP is the nation’s only deep underground nuclear waste repository and a cornerstone of the Energy Department’s $5 billion-a-year program for cleaning up waste scattered at federal labs across the country from decades of making nuclear bombs.

Waste shipments to the dump were halted after the truck fire. Nine days later, the radiation release shuttered all operations.

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