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No injuries, leakage in rockfall at WIPP

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A rock fall in the underground of southeast New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Wednesday prompted the evacuation of the facility and a halt to work there until a thorough inspection can be performed.

The rock fall occurred in an area of Panel 7 where access was already prohibited due to unstable conditions. None of the 53 workers underground at the time was injured and there is no indication of a radiological leak, WIPP officials said Thursday.

The event occurred around 7 p.m. Wednesday when workers heard a loud thud while working in another area of Panel 7.

“I want to emphasize that rock falls are not unexpected in areas that have been prohibited, since we no longer perform ground control activities,” said Todd Shrader, manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, in a news release. “All the proper precautions and safety measures were in place to protect our employees.”

There are two canisters of remote-handled waste emplaced in the walls of the room of Panel 7, along with 10 pieces of equipment contaminated during a February 2014 radiological release, said Donavan Mager, a spokesman for WIPP’s operating contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership.

Mager said work will not resume until an inspection by WIPP’s Mine Rescue Team has been completed and geotechnical engineers have analyzed data from the area.

Ground control, or maintenance, of the salt mine used to permanently dispose of some types of nuclear waste could not be performed for several months after operations in the underground facility were halted after a February 2014 fire and unrelated radiological release.

Workers at the facility had struggled to catch up with bolting the ceiling and walls of the underground since resuming ground control activities at the end of 2014, Mager said, but nearly all “catch up” work, save for some in Panel 10, has been completed.

“We’re back into what we call routine ground control maintenance,” he said.

At the end of 2016, the south end of the facility was closed permanently due to stability concerns and there have been several other rock falls since the 2014 closure, all in prohibited areas.

The salt mine is intended to collapse in on the waste eventually.