During April 14 - 23, 2014, WIPP recovery teams made multiple trips into the WIPP underground, eventually reaching Panel 7, Room 7 - the suspected location of the radiological event. Photo: WIPP.
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WIPP nuclear waste accident will cost US taxpayers $2 billion
Dr Jim Green
20th September 2016
The clean-up after the February 2014 explosion at the world's only deep underground repository for nuclear waste in New Mexico, USA, is massively over budget, writes Jim Green - and full operations won't resume until at least 2021. The fundamental cause of the problems: high level radioactive waste, poor regulation, rigid deadlines and corporate profit make a dangerous mix.
The facility was never designed to operate in a contaminated state. It was supposed to open clean and stay clean, but now it will have to operate dirty. Nobody at the Energy Department wants to consider the potential that it isn't fixable.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Times finds that costs associated with the February 2014 explosion at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) could total US$2 billion.
The direct cost of the clean-up is now estimated at US$640 million, based on a contract modification made in July with contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership.
The cost-plus contract leaves open the possibility of even higher costs as the clean-up continues and, as the LA Times notes, it does not include the complete replacement of the contaminated ventilation system (which failed after the 2014 explosion) or any future costs of operating the repository longer than originally planned.
The lengthy closure following the explosion could result in waste disposal operations extending for an additional seven years, at an additional cost of US$200 million per year or US$1.4 billion (€1.25b) in total. Thus direct (clean-up) costs and indirect costs could exceed US$2 billion.
And further costs are being incurred storing waste at other nuclear sites pending the re-opening of WIPP. Federal officials hope to resume limited operations at WIPP by the end of this year, but full operations cannot resume until a new ventilation system is completed in about 2021.
As expensive as the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster
The US$2 billion figure is similar to the costs associated with the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. The clean-up of Three Mile Island was estimated to cost US$1 billion by 1993, or US$1.7 billion adjusted for inflation today.
Yet another cost for the federal government was a US$74 million (€66m) settlement paid to the state of New Mexico in January 2016. The negotiated agreement relates to the 14 February 2014 explosion and a truck fire that took place nine days earlier.
It sets out corrective actions that Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL - the source of the waste drum that exploded) and WIPP must take to resolve permit violations. The US$74 million settlement is in lieu of fines imposed on the federal government by the state of New Mexico for the two incidents.
Given that the February 2014 fire and explosion exposed multiple levels of mismanagement and slack regulation, it was no surprise that the immediate response to the incidents was problematic. As discussed previously in The Ecologist, everything that was supposed to happen, didn't - and everything that wasn't supposed to happen, did.
And in light of the systemic problems with management and regulation, it is no surprise that clean-up operations over the past 2.5 years have been problematic.
GAO identifies a host of problems
An August 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the federal Department of Energy (DOE) did not meet its initial cost and schedule estimates for restarting nuclear waste disposal operations at WIPP, resulting in a cost increase of about US$64 million (€57m) and a delay of nine months.
Worse still, mismanagement of the clean-up has involved poor safety practices. Last year, the DOE's Independent Office of Enterprise Assessments released a report that found that WIPP clean-up operations were being rushed to meet the scheduled reopening date and that this pressure was contributing to poor safety practices.
The report states: "The EA analysis considered operational events and reviews conducted during May 2014 through May 2015 and identified a significant negative trend in performance of work. During this period, strong and unrealistic schedule pressures on the workforce contributed to poor safety performance and incidents during that time are indicators of the potential for a future serious safety incident."
The report points to "serious issues in conduct of operations, job hazard analysis, and safety basis." Specific problems identified in the report include:
workers incorrectly changing filters resulting in five safety violations;
waste oil left underground for an extended period despite a renewed emphasis on combustible load reduction;
fire water lines inadequately protected against freezing;
inadequate processes leading a small fire underground, followed by the failure of workers and their supervisor to report the fire;
an operator improperly leaving a trainee to operate a waste hoist, the hoist being improperly used, tripping a safety relay and shutting down the hoist for hours;
an engineer violating two safety postings to remove a waste hoist safety guard;
workers removing a grating to an underground tank and not posting a barricade, causing a fall hazard;
a backlog of hundreds of preventive maintenance items; and
failing to properly track overtime such that "personnel may be working past the point of safety".
The Office of Enterprise Assessments' report concludes: "The issues discussed above could be leading indicators of a potentially serious incident in the future. Many more issues involving conduct of operations, maintenance, and inadequate controls also raise concerns about the possibility of a serious incident."
Earlier this year, clean-up work in two underground areas was suspended for one month due to poor air quality. Work was stopped on February 22 after equipment detected elevated levels of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds.
Radioactive contamination of the underground remains a problem, albeit the case that the size of the restricted area has been significantly reduced. "The facility was never designed to operate in a contaminated state," said Don Hancock from the Southwest Research and Information Center.
"It was supposed to open clean and stay clean, but now it will have to operate dirty. Nobody at the Energy Department wants to consider the potential that it isn't fixable."
Los Alamos National Laboratory at fault as well
While a number of reports have exposed problems at WIPP, others have exposed serious problems at LANL. An April 2015 report by DOE's Accident Investigation Board (AIB) concluded that a culture of lax oversight and inadequate safety protocols and training at LANL led to the February 2014 explosion at WIPP.
"If LANL had adequately developed and implemented repackaging and treatment procedures that incorporated suitable hazard controls and included a rigorous review and approval process, the [February 2014] release would have been preventable", the AIB report states.
"The ineffectiveness and weaknesses in the oversight activities were at all levels," said Ted Wyka, the DOE safety expert who led the investigation.
The AIB report points to the failure of LANL to effectively review and control waste packaging, train contractors and identify weaknesses in waste handling. The board also found that LANL, contractor EnergySolutions and the National Nuclear Security Administration office at LANL failed to ensure that a strong safety culture existed at the lab.
The AIB found that workers did not feel comfortable raising safety issues and felt pressured to "get it done at all costs." LANL employees also raised concerns that workers were brought in with little or no experience and rushed through an inadequate training program.
"As a result," the AIB report states, "there was a failure to adequately resolve employee concerns which could have identified the generation of non compliant waste prior to shipment" to WIPP.
'Lessons were not learned'
The immediate cause of the 14 February 2014 explosion ‒ mixing nitrate wastes with an organic absorbent (kitty litter) ‒ was recognised as a potential problem in 2012, if not earlier. One worker told the AIB that when concerns were raised over the use of organic kitty litter as an absorbent, the employee was told to "focus on their area of expertise and not to worry about the other areas of the procedure."
Workers noticed foaming chemicals and orange smoke rising from containers of nuclear waste at LANL, but supervisors told them to "simply wait out the reaction and return to work once the foaming ceased and the smoke subsided," the AIB report states. "Lessons were not learned."
No doubt some lessons have been learned as a result of the underground explosion at WIPP. But Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group points to a problem that is likely to recur. LANL receives bonuses from the DOE for meeting goals such as removing nuclear waste by a certain deadline.
That deadline pressure was very much in evidence at LANL in the lead-up to the WIPP accident and it will likely weaken safety practices in future. "You can't just say everyone has to try harder," Mello said. "Mixing profit, deadlines and dangerous radioactive waste is incompatible."
A February 2016 report from the DOE's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was equally scathing of LANL. "Overall, we found LANL's corrective action program did not always adequately address issues, did not effectively prevent their recurrence, and did not consistently identify systemic problems," the report said.
LANL managers said they agreed with the OIG findings and were working to resolve problems. "The Laboratory is working closely with National Nuclear Safety Administration to address the findings of the audit report", LANL said in a statement.
But the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) - a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE - is itself a big part of the problem of systemic mismanagement of nuclear sites. A June 2015 Government Accountability Office report strongly criticised NNSA oversight of contractors who manage the nation's nuclear weapons facilities.
The report points to a litany of ongoing failures to properly oversee private contractors at eight nuclear sites, including those managing LANL. The report found that the NNSA lacked enough qualified staff members to oversee contractors, and it lacked guidelines for evaluating its contractors.
Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group was blunt in his criticism of the NNSA: "An agency that is more than 90 percent privatized, with barely enough federal employees to sign the checks and answer the phones, is never going to be able to properly oversee billion-dollar nuclear facilities of vast complexity and danger."
Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the newsletter, where a version of this article was originally published.
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