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WIPP contractor loses most of fees for 2014 work

The site contractor that runs the WIPP nuclear waste repository in southeastern New Mexico is taking a $7.6 million hit for its performance in fiscal 2014,when a radiation release shut down the facility.

The Department of Energy said it approved only a fraction of the possible fee paid to Nuclear Waste Partnership for its work managing WIPP – just $561,266 of the nearly $8.2 million the company could have earned.

The Energy Department said it docked the contractor for a range of problems, not the least of which is the indefinite closure of the nation’s only deep underground repository for nuclear waste as result of the radiation accident in February last year.

The Carlsbad facility also faces management changes: The head of the local DOE field office – a Carlsbad native who has long had the support of the community – and the man locally in charge of the site contractor are leaving. The high-level turnover has some Carlsbad leaders concerned as the repository enters its second year of recovery.

The WIPP contractor lacked an effective maintenance program and had been out of compliance with DOE operations requirements until the radiation release forced changes, DOE said in a “fee determination scorecard” available on the WIPP website. It did praise the Nuclear Waste Partnership’s “responsiveness” in the wake of the leak.

In a statement, the partnership said it was “disappointed” with the fee award.

“Although the company feels the award fee score does not fairly recognize the quality of the recovery effort,” the statement said, “we also want to put the events of 2014 behind us and focus our entire attention on recovering the WIPP facility.”

DOE Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco is moving to a new job at the Hanford site in Washington. He worked at WIPP in various capacities for nearly two decades, though not consecutively. He has served as DOE field office manager since 2012.

DOE has not named a replacement.

Meanwhile, Philip Breidenbach is taking over the reins of the Nuclear Waste Partnership as president and project manager, replacing Bob McQuinn, who spent about a year in Carlsbad after the release.

At a town hall meeting Thursday to discuss the results of an investigation into the Feb. 14, 2014, radiation leak, Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway opened by saying, “We are clearly very concerned by what appears to be a high administrative turnover at the federal and contractor level.”

Janway said the city is looking forward to working with Breidenbach and whoever replaces Franco, “but we do consider administrative stability to be essential to the recovery process.”

Don Hancock, a WIPP watchdog with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said the DOE job could be tough to fill, given the challenges of reopening a unique waste repository that is radiologically contaminated.

WIPP is carved 2,150 feet underground from prehistoric salt beds and houses certain types of Cold War-era nuclear waste. DOE sites around the country have had to put their cleanup programs on hold while the Nuclear Waste Partnership works to decontaminate and reopen the facility.

Although the DOE is targeting 2016 for a partial return to operations, Hancock said that he believes changes are needed to the facility’s operating permits with the state – a public process – and that it could take much longer than a year to reopen WIPP.

“As a practical matter, the people who will consider that job will have to consider how it will look at on their resume to be who presided over not getting WIPP open on time,” he said. “It could be an issue.”

Carlsbad’s support of the contractor and management is critical, said John Heaton, who heads the Carlsbad mayor’s Nuclear Task Force.

“The management of DOE under these circumstances needs to be very much integrated into the community,” he said. Carlsbad’s support “was instrumental in getting WIPP open and will be instrumental in getting WIPP open again.”