Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Despite the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant being nonfunctional for nearly three years, the operating and management contract for the southeastern New Mexico repository has been extended through 2020.
Nuclear Waste Partnership, under whose management the underground nuclear waste repository experienced two accidents in February 2014 that resulted in its closure, was awarded a $928 million, three-year extension option by the U.S. Department of Energy on Friday.
A DOE news release says the contract has been modified to “enhance the focus on safety, provide cost incentives that will increase the value to the taxpayers, and reward the workforce for safe and efficient operations.”
“This negotiated option will give Nuclear Waste Partnership the necessary time to continue the progress they have achieved through the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant recovery and resumption of shipments,” DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader said in a statement. “The enhancements to the contract are expected to ensure WIPP is operated safely and efficiently in both waste emplacement and mining operations.”
The contract includes a two-year extension option.
On Feb. 5, 2014, a truck used to haul salt in the underground caught fire, partly because of a buildup of engine and hydraulic oil on its exterior.
As the mine filled with smoke, some employees struggled to use their emergency air supply equipment.
About a week later, a waste-laden drum already that had been placed underground ruptured, releasing small amounts of radiation into the air.
That was found to be the result of a chemical reaction inside an improperly packaged drum from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Those events resulted in a nearly three-year closure of the facility and an overhaul of policies and procedures across the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management complex.
WIPP reopened in January and received its first shipment of waste since closing in 2014.
“The fact that they’re extending for three years is, from my standpoint, further rewarding bad performance,” said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.
Contract modifications include the addition of a chief mining officer to “focus on the safety of the mine” to the list of key personnel, according to the news release.
The person filling that position has not been named.
Several roof collapses were reported in the underground after the site’s reopening due to the lack of maintenance during the closure.
The modifications also increase performance-based incentives awarded to NWP for “improvements to safety-related activities.”
NWP was awarded the original, $1.3 billion contract in 2012.
“We are very appreciative of our client’s confidence in NWP’s continued management and operation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” NWP president and project manager Bruce Covert, who took the helm of the company in May, said in an emailed statement. “Our capable workforce has performed above and beyond all expectations over the past three years; they were the key to safely resuming operations at WIPP and continuing our important national mission.”
Those workers may be financially rewarded under the modifications, which include the addition of a cost incentive that will share some of NWP’s earnings with its workers, based on performance.
Hancock said his organization has long been an advocate for those incentives.
The modifications also include additional investments by NWP into the local community, including Carlsbad, and providing free community services.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district includes WIPP, said the extension will prevent delays in projects such as a planned new exhaust shaft that may have come about as a result of the contract bidding process.
“It is crucial to WIPP and our national security that these improvements are made without delay,” Pearce said in an emailed statement. “I expect AECOM (parent company of NWP) to continue to work on its communication and management with the site, the community, and elected officials. Now is not the time to become complacent or fall into old habits.”