Their jobs won’t ever be the same.
Now that contamination has been discovered underground – although the extent is still unknown – the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant says workers will face a new paradigm when they return to the site: more formality, tougher rules and more protective gear.
“The place that really has had no radiation protection issues now has, not more than the rest of the sites, but similar radiation protection hazards,” said Bob McQuinn, president and project manager of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the Energy Department contractor that operates WIPP.
“Now we’re going to have to wear protective equipment – coveralls, shoe covers and gloves – to make sure contamination doesn’t get on us and respirators so it doesn’t get in us. People who haven’t had to wear protective equipment will have to.”
There is no other place in the world quite like WIPP, with the waste of nuclear weapons testing stored half a mile below the surface in rooms excavated from ancient salt beds. Two incidents in February, a truck fire in the mine and a radiation leak, have shut down the plant for more than two months.
When all of WIPP’s 1,070 workers eventually return to the site, those working underground will likely be doing their jobs in a more hazardous environment – or one where the risks have been made more evident – with new rules of engagement to protect them from exposure to radiation.
“There is a more subtle change that is going to be hard,” said McQuinn, who stepped in to lead the investigation, recovery and cleanup about a month ago. “The formality of what we do is going to have to be strengthened. Although there was training, we weren’t as good at formality of operations as we need to be.”
The Energy Department has made it clear that WIPP will eventually reopen: The fate of transuranic waste sitting at 22 nuclear laboratories, including Los Alamos, depends on it. But underground, plutonium and americium may have contaminated rock salt walls, mixed into dust on the floor, and clung to machinery and other equipment underground. If stirred or scuffed up, the radiation can become airborne and inhaled.
“The first rule of thumb is nobody thinks any of this is good for you,” said Dr. Fred Mettler, a radiologist at the Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center and U.S. representative to the United Nations World Health and Atomic Energy Agency. “So you want to keep doses as low as possible. Medically, it’s very, very difficult to get the stuff out of you.”
NWP workers are not permitted to speak to the press, according to a spokesman.
But the United Steel Workers union represents about 300 WIPP workers. Jim Frederick, USW assistant director of health, safety and environment, says the union’s primary question is: “Is this place going to be safe for our folks to go back to?”
Like other stakeholders, the union is awaiting the results of the investigation into the radiation leak before it weighs in on what kind of protections may be needed going forward.
“What was not in place that might have kept this from happening?” Frederick asked. “And what do we need to do to keep the workers safe and make sure the public health risks are kept at zero or very, very close to zero?”