Environmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only U.S. underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), has been shut down since February 14, when its isolation technology failed, releasing unsafe levels of Plutonium, Americium, and other radio-nuclides into the environment around the site.
Radiation levels in the underground storage area, 2,150 feet below the surface vary from near-normal to potentially lethal. At the time of the February accident, more than 20 WIPP workers suffered low level radioactive contamination, even though none of them were underground. WIPP assumes, but cannot confirm, that underground conditions have not changed since May 31, when the last entry team went into the mine, as reported by WIPP field manager Jose Franco on June 5:
As I noted in my previous letter, we have identified the damaged drum believed to be a contributing source of the radiological release. On May 31, an entry team was able to safely and successfully collect six samples from a variety of locations in Panel 7 of Room 7, including from the breached drum and a nearby standard waste box. These sample results are consistent with the contamination previously identified.
In mid-March, WIPP suffered a surface radiation release almost twice the levels released in February. WIPP was designed to isolate highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the environment for 10,000 years. It went 15 years before its first leak of radioactivity into the above ground environment.
The latest elevated radiation levels were detected by monitors placed by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The monitors measure radiation only after it has passed through the WIPP filtration system that is designed to minimize radiation from escaping from the storage area half a mile underground. Radiation levels in the storage area where the original leak occurred are possibly as lethal as Fukushima, hampering efforts to determine the source, cause, and scale of the February leak.
What happened underground remains a mystery and a danger
More than five months after the February accident, officials still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55 gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area known as Panel 7, Room 7. This room, designated a “High Contamination Area,” measures 33 by 80 feet and presently has 24 rows of waste containers. The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. There is some clearance between the top of the stacks and the room’s ceiling.
The high contamination in Room 7 is a threat to human inspectors, limiting inspection of the room to date to mechanical means, primarily cameras on extension arms. As a result of these limitations, WIPP teams have inspected only ten of the 24 rows of waste containers in Room 7. Rows #1-14 have been out of reach of the available equipment.
WIPP has begun building a full scale replica of Room 7 above ground, to provide a realistic staging area in which to test methods of remote observation that might reach the 14 uninspected rows. According to WIPP:
Options include a device that uses carbon fiber rods to extend the camera, a gantry camera suspended on wires, or a boom system mounted on a trolley that would move across the waste face from wall to wall and out 90 feet to view all rows of waste.
WIPP has spent much of June improving the air filtration system to the mine, adding filters that reduce escaping radiation and improving underground air flow for the sake of entry teams. WIPP suspended underground entries on May 31, apparently to improve safety conditions. Reporting on June 18, field manager Jose Franco wrote:
Since the radiological event, we have safely entered the underground facility nearly a dozen times. Each time, we learn more and we use those discoveries to refine our tasks moving forward. Our entry teams have identified a breached container and we are using all of the resources at our disposal to find the cause.
No one is more eager than we are to determine what happened and return to normal operations.
Nuclear waste in Los Alamos puts National Lab at risk
“Normal operations” in the past included accepting thousands of waste-filled containers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is under a June 30 legal deadline to clean up its above ground and shallow underground waste that has accumulated since the 1940s when Los Alamos scientists were building the first atomic bombs.
The contractor packaging LANL waste into containers made a change a while back, substituting organic kitty litter for the standard inorganic product. More than 500 containers with organic kitty litter have been prepared, 368 of them already stored underground at WIPP. One frequently cited theory (promoted by a WIPP booster) is that one or more of these containers underwent a chemical, heat-generating process because of the organic kitty litter and that reaction caused the container to burst.
The rest of these containers with organic matter are temporarily buried at a West Texas site or remain on the LANL property. They are under constant watch and reportedly none have failed to date.
Los Alamos has been under pressure to clean up its radioactive waste for years, if not decades. But it took the approach of wildfires to the LANL waste site for the laboratory to enter into a binding agreement with the state Environment Department to remove all the waste it has accumulated. As the June 30 deadline approached, LANL again asked the state for an extension of the deadline, saying there wasn’t enough money in its federal budget to comply with the court order.
Lawsuit over state-approved high-level waste containers
Almost two years ago, after the state approved new containers for use at WIPP without holding a public hearing on the application, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) sued to block the containers from coming into use. In the Center’s view, these new, shielded containers were less robust than containers already in use for highly radioactive waste. That issue should have been considered at a public hearing, SRIC argued at the time:
The Appellants and approximately 200 individuals requested that the request to modify the state’s WIPP permit be subject to a public hearing because of the dangers posed by RH [Remote Handled] waste, the technical complexity of handling RH waste at WIPP, and the substantial public interest in the request. NMED ignored those comments and approved the Department of Energy (DOE) request despite the fact that the state agency had in December 2011 and January 2012 rejected virtually the same request.
Remote Handled (RH) waste is so designated because radiation levels are too high to allow close personal contact, so the waste must be handled by remote-controlled machinery. About 10 per cent of WIPP waste is Remote Handled.
In December 2012, NMED had publicly announced a public hearing on the new container issue. The department rescinded the hearing notice four days later, without explaining the change.
The New Mexico Appeals Court heard closing arguments in the case in July 2013, but had not rendered a decision at the time of the February 2014 accident at WIPP.
On June 26, the court held a further hearing to consider whether the radiation release at WIPP was relevant to the use of the new, high-level waste containers. As reported by the New Mexican, this case has a number of anomalies:
The Environment Department said in an email that the shielded containers can be transported in fewer shipments, and the process is quicker and significantly reduces the dosage rates of radiation from the drums.
Moreover, although the department doesn’t know who manufactures the shielded containers, their safety has been vetted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency….
Regulators and the nuclear watchdog group hope the judges will make a decision sooner rather than later. Even though WIPP is closed for now, a whole lot of highly radioactive waste has to be packaged into containers for temporary storage until shipments resume.
Investigations rampant, answers scarce
On June 16, four months after the radiation release from WIPP, the Department of Energy (DOE), announced its “decision to conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances associated with potential programmatic deficiencies in the nuclear safety, radiation protection, emergency management, quality assurance, and worker safety and health programs revealed by the February 2014 fire and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.”
Currently there are at least nine investigations into WIPP’s failure, including DOE, which operates the facility largely through private contractors. A few days later, a DOE attorney told the New Mexico Court of Appeals that “Nobody is contemplating a closure of WIPP,” but that WIPP is unlikely to reopen until 2016 at the earliest.
In March, Don Hancok of SRIC published a piece listing questions that were then unanswered:
* What caused the leak?
* How much leaked into the underground salt mine?
* How much leaked into the environment?
* Where are those radioactive and toxic wastes now?
* To what amount of radiation were the workers exposed?
* What are the health effects for those workers?
* What decontamination is necessary in the underground mine?
* What decontamination is necessary on the WIPP site and surrounding area?
* If WIPP reopens, what changes in the operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented?
On June 25, Hancock published another piece in the same online magazine, La Jicarita, pointing out that the questions of March all remained unanswered in June.
The piece carried this headline:
Why do we still not know what’s wrong with WIPP?