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Editorial: N.M. awaits answers for radiation leak at WIPP

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One chance in 10,000 to one in 1 million.

With odds like this in a given year, gambling folks would likely consider placing a “safe” bet on the impossibility of a radiation accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico.

But when you’re handling radioactive materials all odds are off, as U.S. Department of Energy officials recently learned. A radiation leak at the nation’s only operating underground repository for defense nuclear waste was believed to be a virtual impossibility.

Just couldn’t happen. But it did.

Radiation was detected Feb. 14 about a half mile from the WIPP site near Carlsbad. Operations underground remain at a standstill while investigators try to figure out what caused it to escape from a waste drum or drums in salt chambers 2,100 feet underground and to leak in minute amounts above ground.

The leak contaminated 17 workers who were above ground, at current count. Officials say the very low contamination levels pose no adverse health effects for the workers.

Before WIPP opened 15 years ago, the idea that such an incident essentially couldn’t happen was part of how the project was planned and sold to the state and the public.

A 1997 review of WIPP underground accident scenarios said the most likely potential reason might be human-caused.

But on Valentine’s Day 2014, no one was down in the repository. So, according to the review, the other likely causes for this accident could be an exploding waste drum or the collapse of a roof in a waste disposal room that could have crushed drums causing radiation to escape.

The obvious question is what contingency plans were developed for a leak?

Although a DOE statement said a recovery strategy is being developed, DOE officials have not responded to queries about what kind of contingency plan existed before the leak. However, a WIPP/Environment Department planning document suggests there was some sort of contingency plan to clean up detectable nuclear contamination in the mine.

About a week earlier, an aging salt-hauling truck caught fire underground in an area away from the waste drums. An investigative report released Friday details serious operational deficiencies at WIPP – the truck was poorly maintained, did not have a working automatic fire suppression system and several emergency response systems failed.

On Thursday, the contractor that manages WIPP replaced its president and project manager and shifted him to a new role.

WIPP’s importance to the nation and economic impact to the state cannot be overstated. It was designed to safely store for 10,000 years transuranic waste from U.S. weapons work. It employs about 1,200 people and has a budget of $202 million.

Recently, WIPP has been in the conversation as a potential destination for more lower level waste from other agencies than the DOE. Now, that discussion and already scheduled shipments from DOE laboratories are in limbo. Officials aren’t publicly saying when normal activities at the site can resume.

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. But technical odds notwithstanding, common sense would dictate that a radiation leak in an underground nuclear waste disposal facility is one thing you needed a plan to address.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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