Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
In a salt mine more than 2,000 feet underground where drums of nuclear waste are embedded in enormous rooms – some radiologically contaminated – workers heard a loud noise and saw a spray of salt dust.
It was just before 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 3 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Still recovering from a radiation accident nearly three years ago, managers of the nation’s only deep geologic repository for defense nuclear waste had just two weeks prior decided to shut down the far south end of the mine after the salt ceiling collapsed in two places.
Suspecting a rock fall, workers reported the incident to the Central Monitoring Room on the surface. Managers called for an evacuation of the underground and, following the latest safety protocol, activated the Emergency Operations Center 26 miles away in Carlsbad as a precaution.
The next day, a team of geotechnical and radiological control experts, members of the mine rescue team and a representative from the Mine Safety and Health Administration descended into WIPP. They found a massive area of the ceiling in Room 4 of Panel 7 had crashed: a rock fall two-thirds the length of a football field, eight feet thick.
WIPP is supposed to reopen this month. The U.S. Department of Energy has not publicly changed its position that WIPP will begin putting waste underground in December, a symbolic “end” to a recovery that still will likely go on for years.
There are regulatory hurdles left to clear. WIPP managers are expected to make public the results of a DOE “operational readiness review” this week, which could include corrective actions and could alter the time frame. New Mexico’s Environment Department must also complete a review of safety equipment, procedures and staff training and sign off that WIPP is ready.
But experts say the recent roof collapses inside WIPP – which have injured no one, thanks to precautionary closures of troubled areas – call into question the facility’s ability to handle ground control in a contaminated mine.
At the least, they say, the latest roof fall reduces available real estate underground, including potentially eliminating Room 4. At worst, the inability to keep up with maintenance could threaten worker safety, although WIPP managers frequently repeat that safety is the “highest priority.”
“Presumably all we have left in Panel 7 is Rooms 1, 2 and 3,” said John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force. “They have to get the roof bolting done before they can do anything else with those three rooms. You almost have to assume that it’s been willfully ignored. MSHA has been in almost monthly, criticizing the maintenance of the back,” or ceiling.
“In view of that,” he said, “it’s difficult to understand how you can come to any other conclusion than that it has not been a priority of the contractor. Of course, DOE has some responsibility in oversight of that.”
“DOE should take its time because it is a safety issue,” said Don Hancock, a longtime WIPP watchdog at Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center. “It is a radioactively contaminated mine without adequate ventilation, and in addition they are having roof fall problems in the exact rooms they say they want to put the waste in.”
Many safety priorities
Neither DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Manager Todd Shrader nor Phil Breidenbach, manager of WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, agreed to speak to the Journal for this article; spokesmen cited the upcoming release of the readiness review results.
Breidenbach said during an October town hall: “Rock fall is the single highest hazard to workers and to the mission at WIPP. We know that. We recognize that. It’s of our highest priority, but it’s not the only safety priority that we have. We worry about a lot of things.”
“Where potentially unstable ground is found – and we do assessments every single day – we barricade that area and keep people away from it,” he said.
At the same meeting, Shrader said the end of December was the target to reopen, but “if it takes a little bit longer, it takes a little bit longer.”
WIPP managers have been addressing dozens of corrective actions flagged by accident investigation boards in the wake of the February 2014 radiation release and an unrelated fire on a salt-haul truck days before. Breidenbach previously has touted to the Journal the significant strides NWP has made in restoring a culture of safety and overhauling emergency management procedures.
“When they do reopen … it will be step by step, carefully reviewing operations, making sure that training has addressed all the issues,” said state Environment Secretary Butch Tongate.
The radiation accident drastically reduced ventilation underground, curbing the number of vehicles that can operate. Workers must wear bulky protective clothing and respirators in contaminated areas and thus work more slowly. These and other constraints mean they can’t bolt back the roof at pre-accident rates, and some areas have been left unattended.
Salt was the chosen burial ground for certain types of legacy Cold War nuclear waste because, once filled and closed, the salt will slowly encapsulate the drums forever. But salt’s dynamic nature means WIPP managers are in a race against time – one they have not been winning.
“People have to understand, for WIPP to work it has to be a successful and a safe mining operation,” said Robert Alvarez, a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and former senior policy adviser to the Energy Secretary in the 1990s in the lead-up to WIPP’s opening. “They are just not out of the woods. But they are under enormous pressure to get this thing open because of all these sites sitting on this transuranic waste.”
Transuranic waste consists of boots, gloves and other materials contaminated during weapons production. Hundreds of shipments of “TRU” waste are piling up at sites around the country, including at Los Alamos and Idaho national laboratories and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
“That waste in most cases is not an acute safety hazard, it’s just a matter of logistics and long-term scheduled maintenance,” said Ed Lyman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists global security program.
“Clearly worker health and safety has to be the top priority. DOE can’t let the pressures of trying to reopen according to some arbitrary commitment they made be the driving factor. If God forbid there were a fatal accident, that would be the end of it. They don’t have any choice but to be as cautious as possible.”