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Underground fire at WIPP nuclear repository in Carlsbad NM

Fire at WIPP nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad NM in Feb
Fire at WIPP nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad NM in Feb

On Wednesday, Feb 5 around 10:45 a.m. MST, a fire involving a salt-haul truck broke out underground at the Department of Energy (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. This is an interesting and ongoing tale.

There were 86 workers underground in the mine when the fire started. Even though according to the DOE, all workers were “safely evacuated,” six workers were transported to the Carlsbad Medical Center (CMC) for treatment for smoke inhalation (possibly radioactive smoke) and an additional seven workers were treated onsite.

An Accident Investigation Board was appointed and began investigating the fire on Feb 10 and completed it on March 8.

The Board concluded "this accident was preventable."

The underground fire originated in the salt-haul truck’s engine compartment and involved hydraulic fluid or diesel fuel, which contacted hot surfaces on the truck and ignited.

The operator had just unloaded salt from the truck when he noticed an orange glow and then flames between the engine and the dump sections of the truck. He attempted to extinguish the fire with a portable fire extinguisher stored on the truck and then by activating the truck’s fire suppression system. Both attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful.

The fire not only burned the engine compartment, but it also consumed the front tires, contributing significantly to the tremendous amount of thick black smoke and soot in the underground.

The operator then used a mine phone to notify maintenance of the fire. His supervisor overheard this conversation on a nearby mine phone, which can also be heard throughout the underground. Two nearby workers also heard this discussion and, based on the urgency of the operator’s voice, went to the scene to help. They were pushing a 300-lb fire extinguisher toward the fire when their carbon monoxide monitor alarmed and the thick black smoke worsened.

One worker called the Central Monitoring Room (CMR) to report the fire and smoke and recommended evacuation of the underground.

10:51 a.m.: The CMR operator sounded the evacuation “yelp alarm" for approximately two seconds and then made a public address system announcement stating there was "a fire in the underground and for all personnel to evacuate via the area egress stations."

A subsequent announcement directed the workers to the waste hoist. As reported by some workers, this instruction was not heard throughout the underground, rather some workers learned of the fire and need to evacuate through “chatter” (discussions) on the mine phone, or from coworkers or their supervisors.

10:58 a.m.: The Facility Shift Manager directed the CMR operator to switch the ventilation system from normal mode to filtration mode, believing this would reduce both the fire and smoke in the underground. Unfortunately, it resulted in a flow of thick black smoke into underground areas where workers expected to have “good air."

11:03 a.m.: The CMR activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The first group of workers arrived at the waste hoist and the first of three trips to evacuate the workers from the mine via the waste hoist to the surface was completed. Other workers made their way on foot or in electric carts from various locations throughout the underground to the waste hoist.

At this point, there was thick black smoke in most areas of the underground and smoke could also be seen on the surface “exiting the salt handling shaft.

There was so much smoke that workers had difficulty reaching the waste hoist due to poor visibility from their primary evacuation routes and obscured evacuation route reflectors, which was compounded by a delay in activating the evacuation strobe lights.Additionally, some workers had difficulty opening and donning their self-rescuers or self-contained self-rescuers.

11:20 a.m.: The second mantrip of underground personnel was completed.

11:34 a.m.: The third and final mantrip was completed.

According to the Accident Investigation Board, this disaster was preventable. But, can nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, radioactive waste dumps, and the like be protected against natural disasters that are not predictable or preventable, like unprecedented floods, earthquakes and quake swarms, sinkholes, landslides, and the like?

You be the judge of that!

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