By William Boardman
Something happened in February, something is STILL going on
nvironmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only underground storage facility for nuclear weapons waste in the U.S., near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), has been shut down since February 14, when its isolation technology failed, releasing unsafe levels of Plutonium, Americium, and other radio-nuclides into the environment around the site.
Radiation levels in the underground storage area, 2,150 feet below the surface, vary from near-normal to potentially lethal. At the time of the February accident, more than 20 WIPP workers suffered low level radioactive contamination, even though none of them were underground.
More than five months after the February accident, officials still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55-gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area known as Panel 7, Room 7. This room, designated a “High Contamination Area,” measures 33 by 80 feet and presently has 24 rows of waste containers. The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. There is some clearance between the top of the stacks and the room’s ceiling.
The high contamination in Room 7 is a threat to human inspectors, limiting inspection of the room to date to mechanical means, primarily cameras on extension arms. As a result of these limitations, WIPP teams have inspected only ten of the 24 rows of waste containers in Room 7. Rows #1-14 have been out of reach of the available equipment.
“Normal operations” in the past included accepting thousands of waste-filled containers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is under a June 30 legal deadline to clean up its above-ground and shallow underground waste that has accumulated since the 1940s, when Los Alamos scientists were building the first atomic bombs.
In the past, the state had granted an extension more than 100 times. This time New Mexico said no. That will subject LANL to further sanctions, including fines.
Almost two years ago, after New Mexico approved new containers for use at WIPP without holding a public hearing on the application, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) sued to block the containers from coming into use. In the center’s view, these new, shielded containers were less robust than containers already in use for highly radioactive waste. That issue should have been considered at a public hearing, SRIC argued at the time:
The Appellants and approximately 200 individuals requested that the request to modify the state’s WIPP permit be subject to a public hearing because of the dangers posed by RH [Remote Handled] waste, the technical complexity of handling RH waste at WIPP, and the substantial public interest in the request. NMED ignored those comments and approved the Department of Energy (DOE) request despite the fact that the state agency had in December 2011 and January 2012 rejected virtually the same request.
Remote Handled (RH) waste is so designated because radiation levels are too high to allow close personal contact, so the waste must be handled by remote-controlled machinery. About 10 per cent of WIPP waste is Remote Handled.
In December 2012, NMED had publicly announced a public hearing on the new container issue. The department rescinded the hearing notice four days later, without explaining the change.