Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery via Los Angels Times

Experts still haven’t unraveled how an accident contaminated the nation’s only dump for nuclear weapons waste

Nuclear waste accident in New Mexico was a ‘horrific comedy of errors’

Preliminary investigation finds more than 30 safety lapses at New Mexico nuclear waste plant

A 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam.

The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers.

The accident contaminated the nation’s only dump for nuclear weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation’s elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel.

Six months after the accident, the exact chemical reaction that caused the drum to burst is still not understood. Indeed, the Energy Department has been unable to precisely identify the chemical composition of the waste in the drum, a serious error in a handling process that requires careful documentation and approval of every substance packaged for a nuclear dump.

The job of identifying the waste that is treated and prepared for burial will grow even more difficult in the years ahead when the Energy Department hopes to treat even more highly radioactive wastes now stored at nuclear processing sites across the country and transform them into glass that will be buried at future high-level dumps.

The accident at the facility near Carlsbad, N.M., known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closure that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule.

A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. Only nine days before the radiation release, a giant salt-hauling truck caught fire underground and burned for hours before anybody discovered it.


“The accident was a horrific comedy of errors,” said James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. “This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll.”


The radiation doses the workers received during the hours after the accident were a small fraction of the allowable occupational limits and the workers should have no health impacts, Energy Department officials said.

Although WIPP operating procedures were faulty, the dump itself did not cause the accident. The steel drum was packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The drum principally contained nitrate salts, a byproduct of the chemical process that extracts plutonium, used in the triggers of hydrogen bombs.


In Carlsbad, the closest city to the WIPP, officials have voiced support for the economically vital dump, but they also are worried about safety. When Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz went to Carlsbad this month, Jay Jenkins, president of Carlsbad National Bank, told him at a town hall meeting that he did not think the WIPP had adequate funding to ensure safety.

Moniz acknowledged such concerns, promising to ensure the future safety of the plant.

“You stick with us, and we’re sticking with you,” Moniz said.

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