Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
The U.S. Department of Energy says its decision to indefinitely delay reopening a southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository is due to safety concerns and equipment setbacks, but critics claim the holdup has as much to do with missteps and inadequate oversight.
DOE says it needs more time to ensure a safe recovery from last year’s underground fire and radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, so the March 2016 target to restart some operations is no longer feasible. A new schedule is expected this fall – and is likely to come with increased costs above the original $500 million estimated.
But local watchdogs claim the delays stem from errors made by the site contractor and inadequate oversight by DOE – not just safety concerns.
John Heaton, head of the Carlsbad mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, rattled off a list of issues at WIPP, including ventilation equipment that was damaged en route from the manufacturer, a safety document that has taken more than eight months to rewrite, delays in decisions about how to permanently reconfigure the contaminated underground ventilation system – among other things.
“It’s just really frustrating,” he said. “How would you call it anything but incompetence?”
Earlier this month, a high-ranking DOE official highlighted WIPP’s progress in making repairs, decontaminating the underground caverns and sealing repository rooms but said the “schedule and cost plans” need to be revised.
“When we announced the recovery plan last September, we identified (March 2016) as a target date,” said Frank Marcinowski, deputy assistant DOE secretary for waste management, at a town hall meeting in Carlsbad. “That was based on the assumption that we believed it could be done safely. Right now we don’t believe the beginning of waste emplacement operations on that date is in anyone’s best interests.”
Also at the meeting was Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway. He reminded the audience that “the eyes of the entire world are on this facility right now.”
“Announcing a deadline and then not meeting it is harmful to the critical mission of cleaning up the nation’s transuranic waste,” he said, referring to the byproducts of the nation’s weapons production that can be disposed of at WIPP, including gloves, equipment and debris contaminated by radiation.
“We certainly recognize that some of these delays are due to safety concerns and respect the need for caution in these occurrences,” he said, “but it would not be fair to say the entire delay is due to safety. There were also delays caused by additional human error and by poorly developed procedural overlaps.”
For example, Heaton says, the damaged ventilation equipment: Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates WIPP, ordered an interim ventilation system that it would install at WIPP to increase the air flow underground. Ever since the radiation leak contaminated a key air exhaust shaft, ventilation in the repository has been constrained, limiting the work that can be accomplished.
But the new interim system – a “huge piece of equipment,” Heaton says – was shipped 1,600 miles from Pittsburgh whole, instead of in parts.
“They knew what the risks were in terms of shipping,” Heaton said. “You are going to end up with broken welds, like we did. Now they have to go through the whole piece of equipment, recertify that everything is functioning the way it should. It’s a big, time-consuming process. If it had been shipped to us unassembled, it would have been in place and installed a month ago. Those are things that are unbelievable to me.”
In a statement, NWP faulted its vendors for the damage and said it is making repairs on site. The company said it expects to install the ventilation system next month.
“Upon discovery of the damage, Nuclear Waste Partnership immediately contacted the responsible vendor to develop a corrective action plan that ensured the unit was repaired to very specific nuclear industry quality assurance standards,” the company said, adding that “recent fabrication and shipping problems caused by vendors have prompted NWP to strengthen its quality assurance oversight.”
“The fundamental issue here is NWP is supposed to make sure these things don’t happen, whether it’s their employees, contractors or suppliers,” said Don Hancock, a longtime WIPP observer.
Cleanup on hold
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz touted a March 2016 reopening during a visit to Carlsbad a year ago in August, when he applauded WIPP’s recovery plan and reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to the facility.
With WIPP closed to waste shipments since the February 2014 accidents, cleanup programs at nuclear laboratories from Washington to South Carolina – including at Los Alamos National Laboratory – have been put on hold.
Investigators lay much of the blame for the radiation release on Los Alamos, which improperly packaged a drum of nuclear waste with incompatible materials – including a combustible mix of nitrate salts and organic cat litter, used as an absorbent. Once placed underground at WIPP, the drum heated and ruptured, releasing plutonium and americium underground and, at low levels, into the environment.
DOE and NWP defend the slow-going recovery, saying that the pace reflects their commitment to safety and that progress has been made.
About 65 percent of the underground is considered a “controlled area,” where no protection against radiation is required. Storage panels packed with waste drums, including some that contain incompatible materials similar to the drum that ruptured, have been sealed. WIPP has also been catching up on critical maintenance, including bolting the repository’s salt ceiling, which must be continually secured to prevent a collapse.
“I can’t stress enough that the safety of the workplace is a top priority,” Marcinowski said at the town hall.
Twenty-two workers were contaminated at low levels by the radiation release.
Hancock, who runs Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center, has been pressing for DOE to roll back its plans for the soft reopening.
“The backing down on the schedule is a good move,” he said. “When you say you are interested in safety and you have a schedule, you are schedule-driven.”