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WIPP equipment, maintenance, DOE, and NWP all blamed for fire, radiation leaks

Airborne radioactive leak at WIPP

The never-ending story of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) fire and radiation leaks in Carlsbad, New Mexico, raises questions about nuclear safety and the future of nuclear waste around this country, as well as around the world.

It’s is still unknown what at WIPP is leaking or how extensive the contamination might be below ground. It has been said the extent of contamination “could topple long-held assumptions.”

On Feb 5, a salt-hauling vehicle caught fire, resulting in the evacuation of 86 workers, who were working underground at WIPP at the time. Several WIPP employees were exposed to radiation. The fire created a lot of thick black smoke, which was seen escaping through the salt-handling shaft outside of WIPP.

The radiation leak, "identified by WIPP" at 11:30 p.m., Friday, Feb 14, was covered up for six days. At first, Department of Energy (DOE) experts said "increased radiation in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is not related incidents at WIPP." However, DOE and "other sources" later confirmed that trace amounts of particulate radiation were released to the surface and into the atmosphere at the WIPP facility. It may take six days or more, but eventually, the truth comes out.

The Accident Investigation Board (Board) found a total of 10 contributing factors for the fire at the nuclear waste dump, and it "places blame" as follows:

  • Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP)'s for a "less than adequate" fire protection program
  • DOE's Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) for being negligent in holding NWP accountable for cleanup of potential hazards, "despite repeated reported deficiencies."
  • DOE's Headquarters in Washington for not holding the CBFO accountable
  • DOE's Headquarters for generally poor oversight

However, DOE investigators "beg to differ." They say:

  • Ineffective maintenance and poor safety procedures by NWP and previous contractor, Washington TRU Solutions, are to blame for February's underground fire at WIPP.
  • Contributing causes of the fire were an accumulation of combustible materials in the underground that exceeded set limits.

Not to worry, there's plenty of blame to go around. NWP holds Farok Sharif to blame and to prove it, they've demoted him from President of NWP to TRU Waste Program Project Manager. Bob McQuinn replaces him as president. And then there's a team of Federal investigators who want to visit the site. We'll have to wait to see where they place blame.

On Wednesday, April 2, two eight-person teams entered the underground facility for the first time since the Feb. 14 radiation leak. They were suited in anti-contamination gear and equipped with powered air-breathing units.The team did not detect any "airborne contamination." Wednesday's work paves the way for additional workers to enter the mine to identify the source of the radiation leaks and begin cleanup efforts.

Stay tuned . . .

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