WIPP claims to be back in business, nearly three years after severe radioactive contamination of underground facility, and environmental release impacting workers
As reported by the Carlsbad, New Mexico Current-Argus and the Albuquerque Journal, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has emplaced the first trans-uranic (TRU) -- plutonium-contaminated nuclear weapons-related -- waste in nearly three years.
The Journal article reports:
“What they are doing is very risky,” said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, a longtime WIPP watchdog group. “There still is a lot of contamination in the underground. Workers have to use protective equipment, which makes it slow and more likely to have problems.”
In February 2014, WIPP suffered two disasters in just several days. The first was an underground haul truck fire, that sent a couple dozen workers to the emergency room with smoke inhalation. One worker suffered permanent disability.
The second disaster (which took place on Valentine's Day, 2014) involved an underground barrel burst, which contaminated a large part of the underground WIPP facility with TRU, and even resulted in radioactive releases to the atmosphere, which then fell out downwind in the surface environment. Another couple dozen workers above ground suffered internal alpha particle inhalation, significantly increasing their risk for lung cancer in the future.
Estimates for the recovery from the barrel burst range from $1 billion (L.A. Times) to $2 billion (a recent DOE admission). Federal taxpayers will be forced to pay for this.
Recent problems at WIPP include the collapse of ceilings in the underground mine, caused by lack of maintenance due to the complications of protecting workers in full body suits and respirators, given the serious contamination. One of many recent collapses happened near workers.
The rush to restart WIPP emplacement operations, despite the risks, is likely due to the end of the Obama administration, on Jan. 20th. Energy Secretary Moniz, who will attend an ironic VIP ribbon cutting ceremony at WIPP next Monday (WIPP began operations in 1999!), would likely relish being able to say WIPP restarted on his watch.
WIPP is the first and only deep geologic repository for radioactive waste disposal in the U.S., and so is held up as a poster child of success, as the U.S. Department of Energy and rest of the nuclear industry seek DGRs (or DUDs, for Deep Underground Dumps) for such other waste streams as highly radioactive commercial irradiated nuclear fuel.