There is only one deep underground dump (DUD) for nuclear waste anywhere in the world, and it's a dud. The broad outline of this dud DUD story is simple and predictable: over a period of 10−15 years, high standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a burial site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste drums have been stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 metres) underground since WIPP opened in 1999.
Earl Potter, a lawyer who represented Westinghouse, WIPP's first operating contractor, said: "At the beginning, there was an almost fanatical attention to safety. I'm afraid the emphasis shifted to looking at how quickly and how inexpensively they could dispose of this waste."1
Likewise, Rick Fuentes, president of the Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers union, said: "In the early days, we had to prove to the stakeholders that we could operate this place safely for both people and the environment. After time, complacency set in. Money didn't get invested into the equipment and the things it should have."1
Before WIPP opened, sceptical locals were invited to watch experiments to assure them how safe the facility would be. Waste containers were dropped from great heights onto metal spikes, submerged in water and rammed by trains.1 Little did they know that a typo and kitty litter would be the undoing of WIPP.
On 14 February 2014, a drum rupture spread contaminants through about one-third of the underground caverns and tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, and into the outside environment. Twenty-two people were contaminated with low-level radioactivity.
A Technical Assessment Team convened by the US Department of Energy (DoE) has recently released a report into the February 2014 accident.2 The report concludes that just one drum was the source of radioactive contamination, and that the drum rupture resulted from internal chemical reactions.
Chemically incompatible contents in the drum − nitrate salt residues, organic sorbent and an acid neutralization agent − supported heat-generating chemical reactions which led to the creation of gases within the drum. The build-up of gases displaced the drum lid, venting radioactive material and hot matter that further reacted with the air or other materials outside the drum to cause the observed damage.
The problems began at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where the drum was packed. One of the problems at LANL was the replacement of inorganic absorbent with an organic absorbent − kitty litter. Carbohydrates in the kitty litter provided fuel for a chemical reaction with metal nitrate salts being disposed of.
The switch to kitty litter took effect on 1 August 2012. LANL staff were explicitly directed to "ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste" when packaging drums of nitrate salts. LANL's use of organic kitty litter defied clear instructions from WIPP to use an inorganic absorbent.3
Why switch from inorganic absorbent to organic kitty litter? The most likely explanation is that the problem originated with a typo in notes from a meeting at LANL about how to package "difficult" waste for shipment to WIPP − and the subsequent failure of anyone at LANL to correct the error. In email correspondence, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, said: "General consensus is that the 'organic' designation was a typo that wasn't caught."3
LANL officials have since acknowledged several violations of its Hazardous Waste Facility Permit including the failure to follow proper procedures in making the switch to organic litter, and the lack of follow-up on waste that tests showed to be highly acidic.4
The heat generated by the rupture of drum #68660 may have destabilized up to 55 other drums that were in close proximity. A June 2014 report by LANL staff based at WIPP said the heat "may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction. The dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction."5
The Albuquerque Journal reported on March 15 that 368 drums with waste comparable to drum #68660 are stored underground at WIPP − 313 in Panel 6, and 55 in Room 7 of Panel 7, the same room as drum #68660. WIPP operators are trying to isolate areas considered to be at risk with chain links, brattice cloth to restrict air flow, mined salt buffers and steel bulkheads. Efforts to shut off particular rooms and panels have been delayed and complicated by radiological contamination, limitations on the number of workers and equipment that can be used due to poor ventilation, and months of missed maintenance that followed the February 2014 accident.6
An Associated Press report states that since September 2012, LANL packed up to 5,565 drums with organic kitty litter. Of particular concern are 16 drums with highly acidic contents as well as nitrate salts. Of those 16 drums, 11 are underground at WIPP (one of them is drum #68660), and the other five are in temporary storage at a private waste facility in Andrews, Texas.4
Freedom of Information revelations
The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper has revealed further details about problems before and after the February 2014 accident, based on material from a Freedom of Information Act request.3
The New Mexican reports that LANL workers came across a batch of waste that was highly acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. A careful review of treatment options should have followed, but instead LANL and its contractors took shortcuts, adding acid neutralizer as well as kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The wrong neutralizer was used, exacerbating the problem.3
One of these waste drums was #68660. Documents accompanying the drum from LANL to WIPP made no mention of the high acidity or the neutralizer, and they said that it contained an inorganic absorbent.3
The decision to take shortcuts was likely motivated by pressure to meet a deadline to remove waste from an area at LANL considered vulnerable to fire. Meeting the deadline would have helped LANL contractors' extend their lucrative contracts to package waste at LANL and transport it to WIPP.3
For two years preceding the February 2014 incident, LANL refused to allow inspectors conducting annual audits for the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) inside the facility where waste was treated, saying the auditors did not have appropriate training to be around radioactive waste. The NMED did not insist on gaining access because, in the words of a departmental spokesperson, it was "working on higher priority duties at the time that mandated our attention."3
There were further lapses after the drum rupture. The New Mexican reported:
"Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste − even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence − and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository."3
Several months after the rupture of drum #68660, an LANL chemist discovered that the contents of the drum matched those of a patented explosive. Personnel at WIPP were not informed of the potential for an explosive reaction for nearly another week − and they only learned about the problem after a DoE employee leaked a copy of the chemist's memo to a colleague in Carlsbad the night before a planned entry into the room that held the ruptured drum. That planned entry was cancelled. Workers in protective suits entered the underground area several days later to collect samples.3
"I am appalled that LANL didn't provide us this information," Dana Bryson from DoE's Carlsbad Field Office wrote in an email when she learned of the memo.3
The DoE employee who first alerted WIPP personnel to the threat was reprimanded by the DoE's Los Alamos Site Office for sharing the information.3
Inevitably the clean-up has faced problems due to radioactive contamination in the underground panels and tunnels, and delays in routine underground maintenance because of the contamination. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on some of these problems:
"In October, when a fan was tested for the first time since the accident, it kicked up low levels of radioactive materials that escaped from the mine. Waste drums that normally would have been permanently disposed of within days of their arrival at WIPP instead were housed in an above-ground holding area for months and leaked harmful but nonradioactive vapors that sickened four workers. A chunk of the cavern's ceiling crashed to the ground after the contamination delayed for months the routine bolting that would have stabilized the roof."1
Another problem is that workers are entering underground areas that are not being monitored for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Monitoring of these compounds, a condition of WIPP's permit from the state of New Mexico, has not been taking place since February 2014 because of limited access to contaminated underground areas.5
Don Hancock from the Southwest Research and Information Center said:
"They have no intention of starting to do the volatile organic compound monitoring in the underground at least until January of 2016. They fully intend to keep sending workers into the underground with no intention of following this requirement. It's in violation of the permit, and the Environment Department should say so."5
The NMED has fined the DoE US$54 million (€49.2m). The Department identified 13 violations at WIPP, and imposed penalties of US$17.7 million (€16.1m). The Department identified 24 violations at LANL, and imposed penalties of US$36.6 million (€33.3m).7 The DoE is appealing the fines.8
The DoE says that any state fines it pays for the WIPP accident will come from money appropriated to clean up nuclear weapons sites in New Mexico. A 2016 budget year summary presented in February by DoE's Office of Environmental Management says: "Any fines and penalties assessed on the EM [environmental management] program would be provided by cleanup dollars, resulting in reduced funding for cleanup activities."8
NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn responded:
"Essentially, DoE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws. States like New Mexico welcome federal facilities into our communities with the understanding that these facilities will respect the health and safety of our citizens by complying with federal and state laws."8
The NMED is working on a new compliance order that could include fines of more than US$100 million (€91.1m). Flynn said:
"We've indicated all along that if DoE is willing to take accountability for the events that caused the release and work with the state then we'd be willing to release them from any further liability at Los Alamos and WIPP. If DoE is not willing to take accountability for what's occurred, then they are going to face significant additional penalties."9
A February 22 editorial in the Albuquerque Journal states:
"It would behoove the DoE to quit poisoning the well when it doesn't have another option for disposing of this kind of waste underground. ... So the DOE should start paying up and playing fair with the only game in town."10
Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group said that an increase in weapons spending proposed by the Obama administration would pay "all the NMED-proposed fines a few times over."8
Costs associated with the February 2014 accident include clean-up costs, fines, and costs associated with managing the backlog of waste at other sites until it can be sent to WIPP. Total costs will be at least US$500 million (€455m).1
WIPP is unlikely to be fully operational until at least 2018 according to federal Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. "We are targeting 2018 but I have to admit that that remains a little uncertain; the key project is the new ventilation system and that is still undergoing engineering analysis," Moniz said in February.
Don Hancock doubts that the 2018 timeline can be met. Salt mines exist across the world, he said, but reopening a contaminated salt mine following a radiological release is unprecedented and the government has no model to follow.11
Earl Potter, the former Westinghouse lawyer with a long association with WIPP, told the New Mexican that he doubted whether WIPP could continue if another radiation leak happened during the recovery process. "We can survive one," he said, "but two, I don't think so."1
1. Patrick Malone, 14 Feb 2015, 'Repository's future uncertain, but New Mexico town still believes', www.santafenewmexican.com/special_reports/from_lanl_to_leak/repository-s...
2. Technical Assessment Team, March 2015, 'Investigation of Incident at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant'
Full report: http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2015/03/f20/MARCH%202015%20-%20FINAL%...
3. Patrick Malone, 15 Nov 2014, 'LANL officials downplayed waste's dangers even after leak', www.santafenewmexican.com/special_reports/from_lanl_to_leak/lanl-officia...
4. Jeri Clausing / Associated Press, 4 July 2014, 'U.S. lab admits violating nuke-waste permit', www.sltrib.com/sltrib/world/58150394-68/waste-lab-wallace-acidic.html.csp
5. Patrick Malone, 29 Nov 2014, 'Emails raise questions about risks to WIPP workers sent underground', www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/emails-raise-questions-about-s...
6. Lauren Villagran, 15 March 2015, 'Roof collapses pose safety risk for workers at WIPP', www.abqjournal.com/555711/news/roof-collapses-pose-safety-risk-at-wipp.html
7. WNN, 8 Dec 2014, 'Fines follow WIPP incidents', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Fines-follow-WIPP-incidents-0812147.html
8. Mark Oswald, 20 Feb 2015, 'DOE says any fines for WIPP leak will come from clean-up money', www.abqjournal.com/544461/news/doe-says-any-fines-for-wipp-leak-will-com...
9. 10 Feb 2015, 'New Mexico Considers More Fines Over Nuke Leak', www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/02/10/us/ap-us-nuke-repository-recovery.ht...
10. Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board, 22 Feb 2015, 'Editorial: Balking at fines won't help DOE reach a nuke solution', www.abqjournal.com/544790/opinion/balking-at-fines-wont-help-doe-reach-a...
11. Meg Mirshak, 24 March 2015, 'New Mexico group doubts WIPP repository will reopen by deadline, leaving waste stranded at Savannah River Site', http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/metro/2015-03-24/new-mexico-group-doub...