Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Declining Safety Culture at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant?

Here’s another nuclear-related facility you may or may not know about: The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located near Carlsbad, NM.  WIPP’s mission is to safely dispose of defense-related transuranic radioactive waste.  “Transuranic” refers to man-made elements that are heavier than uranium; in DOE’s waste the most prominent of these elements is plutonium but waste also includes others, e.g., americium.*

Recently there have been two incidents at WIPP.  On Feb. 5, 2014 a truck hauling salt underground caught fire.  There was no radiation exposure associated with this incident.  But on Feb. 14, 2014 a radiation alert activated in the area where newly arrived waste was being stored.  Preliminary tests showed thirteen workers suffered some radiation exposure.

It will come as no surprise to folks associated with nuclear power plants that WIPP opponents have amped up after these incidents.  For our purposes, the most interesting quote comes from Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center: “I’d say the push for expansion is part of the declining safety culture that has resulted in the fire and the radiation release.”  Not surprisingly, WIPP management disputes that view.**

Our Perspective

So, are these incidents an early signal of a nascent safety culture (SC) problem?  After all, SC issues are hardly unknown at DOE facilities.  Or is the SC claim simply the musing of an opportunistic anti?  Who knows.  At this point, there is insufficient information available to say anything about WIPP’s SC.  However, we’ll keep an eye on this situation.  A bellwether event would be if the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board decides to get involved.

See the WIPP and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites for project information.  If the WIPP site is judged suitable, the underground storage area is expected to expand to 100 acres.

The EPA and the New Mexico Environmental Department have regulatory authority over WIPP.  The NRC has regulatory authority over the containers used to ship waste.  See National Research Council, “Improving the Characterization Program for Contact-Handled Transuranic Waste Bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004), p. 27.

**  J. Clausing, “Nuclear dump leak raises questions about cleanup,” Las Vegas Review-Journal (Mar. 1, 2014).  Retrieved Mar. 3, 2014.

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