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Editorial: Tie DOE contractor bonus to performance at WIPP

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The Department of Energy apparently ignored the equivalent of a dead canary in the mine when it gave the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant contractor a nearly $2 million bonus just five days after a truck caught fire in the nuclear waste repository and just four days before a radiation leak.

Instead of waiting until an investigation into the Feb. 5 fire in the half-mile deep salt mine near Carlsbad could determine a cause for the fire, DOE did what government agencies tend to do – followed bureaucratic timelines, in this case to hand out a bonus check for a contractor’s “excellent” or “very good” performance. After all, it’s only taxpayer money and apparently such bonuses are “almost a ritual.”

Independent investigators subsequently have issued separate reports that cite dozens of long-term safety and maintenance deficiencies. They faulted Nuclear Waste Partnership and the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office. They determined the 29-year-old salt-hauling truck was improperly maintained, allowing diesel fuel and engine oil to build up, and that it was operating without an automatic fire-suppression system. They concluded that the plant’s emergency response procedures were not followed.

After the bonus payment there was an even more serious safety breach; radiation was released from a drum containing transuranic waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The release, now believed to have been caused by some sort of hot reaction that cracked the drum, subjected nearly two dozen workers on the surface to small amounts of radiation and has effectively shut down the nation’s only nuclear weapons waste repository.

The independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board issued a report in March criticizing WIPP in both incidents, describing the initial response to the Feb. 14 radiation release as “unsatisfactory” and the truck accident as “preventable.”

Yes, DOE has since slapped NWP with a $2 million reduction in available performance-based incentive and award fees for fiscal 2014, but the fact is WIPP is closed because of NWP’s past performance; by definition there won’t be much performance on anyone’s part in the foreseeable future.

NWP’s operations’ contract is good through 2017, with a five-year option for renewal. As NWP implements corrective actions, DOE should ensure those changes are made. Going forward bonuses and incentives truly should only be given for top-notch maintenance practices and a clean safety record.

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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