Guest column: Lessons from New Mexico

Those running the Idaho National Laboratory can learn from two accidents that took place at the WIPP facility in February, writes Tami Thatcher.

By Tami Thatcher

The Department of Energy’s strategy of “start clean, stay clean” for the 2,150-foot-deep underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant ended with the two preventable accidents last February. The New Mexico WIPP facility for disposal of nuclear weapons-related transuranic radioactive waste had been in operation for 15 years.

The two accident investigation reports, available at, put on display a very different picture of WIPP operations than Joe Franco, Carlsbad Field Office DOE Manager, had provided just one year ago at the Idaho National Laboratory Citizens Advisory Board meeting in Idaho Falls.

The first accident investigation described the poorly maintained salt truck that caused an underground fire. With the difficulty of controlling the fire, one quarter of the underground phones non-functional and a paging system few people could hear, DOE was lucky no one was injured.

The report found inadequate fire hazard analysis, excess combustible materials, equipment out of service for extended periods of time and inadequate worker training. Numerous warnings from past audit findings that could have prevented the accident were ignored. A survey had also identified a chilled work environment where reporting safety problems and noncompliances was discouraged as well as cumbersome.

Any of this sound familiar?

The second accident on February 14, which released americium and plutonium, is still being investigated; however, structural problems initially suspected have been ruled out. Of the more than 171,000 waste containers stored, it appears that a chemical reaction in one waste drum spread radioactive contamination throughout the underground mine and to the environment. The HEPA filtration system activated. Had the HEPA system not activated, doses to workers even above ground could have far exceeded regulatory 5 rem worker limits.

But this HEPA system had, in recent years, been deemed by DOE as unnecessary and not required to be operable. And leakage of unmonitored contamination upstream of the HEPA filters continued through two dampers until March 6.

In the past, WIPP’s safety basis had received extensive scrutiny, more than any other DOE facility. But this did not stop the rapid unraveling of protective barriers with recent cost-saving safety basis changes. These unjustified changes, along with various errors, had all been reviewed and approved by DOE.

Bioassay of workers for contamination was initially and erroneously thought to be unnecessary. But, even performed days late, they found 21 above ground workers with internal contamination.

The DOE accident investigation concluded that WIPP had an ineffective safety basis program, ineffective radiological program, ineffective emergency management program and ineffective DOE oversight.

The INL needs to send more waste to WIPP, waste buried “temporarily” at INL from DOE’s Rocky Flats Weapons plant. But even more importantly, INL needs to prove that it takes seriously lessons from the two WIPP accidents regarding the risks of inadequate safety analysis, inadequate fire protection and inadequate emergency onsite and offsite response.