A series of incidents last month at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad became the latest issue to draw concerns from a government oversight agency.
At the WIPP site, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste consisting of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities around the country is brought in for permanent disposal in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.
In the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s latest report on WIPP, published May 6, the board pointed to two vehicle collisions on WIPP’s surface, along with damage to a chemical sensor in the underground fuel bay that led to the activation of WIPP’s sprinkler system and evacuation lights.
The string of incidents at the facility led to a “safety stand down” on April 6, the report read, when work at the site was paused for a day to address safety issues.
Work resumed on April 7, per the report.
WIPP’s main operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) took multiple corrective actions in response, the report read, including transferring remaining fuel from the bay to the surface and placing barriers and posting urging caution at the bay.
Workers were also temporarily moved out of the area, read the report.
The Board shared a concern in its report that despite the evacuation lights activating, though apparently in error, some workers did not evacuate as required by site policy.
The contractor planned to brief staff on required actions during an evacuation, the report read.
“However, though NWP staff saw the evacuation lights, they did not all evacuate the mine as required by the procedures,” read the report. “As a result, NWP plans to take additional compensatory measures to brief personnel on what is expected during an evacuation response and to review training records and procedures.”
Nuclear waste sent back to Idaho after contamination found
Another incident reported last month involving a waste shipment from Idaho National Laboratory (INL) containing an unknown liquid contaminated with radiation was also detailed in the Board’s report.
The U.S. Department of Energy reported the incident the night of April 9, and immediately evacuated the waste handling building while the area was tested.
No further radiological contamination was found on workers or in the area, and waste handling and shipments from Idaho were temporarily paused amid the investigation.
NWP opted to develop a two-phase response plan, the report read, starting with establishing protocols to separate the drum of waste from others safely.
The contractor also plans to review the incident and address any compliance issues that could have resulted in the mispackaged drum.
The first phase was approved April 15, and the second phase was expected to be submitted to the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office 30 days later.
“Radiological control technicians sampled the material and liquid and identified radioactive contamination,” read the report. “The waste handlers stopped work and notified the on-duty waste handling engineer.”
WIPP spokesman Bobby St. John said the drum of waste was shipped back to Idaho for further evaluation into the cause of the contamination, and it arrived on May 9.
Shipments from the lab were resumed, he said Thursday, and were being heavily inspected for radiation.
“After evaluation of the conditions and consultation with the Idaho National Laboratory Site (INL) site and State and Federal regulators, it was concluded that the best option for determining the origin of the contamination was to return the TRUPACT shipping container and its contents to the INL site,” St. John said.
“INL is preparing to open the container under controlled conditions to determine the source of the contamination.”
He said WIPP prioritized worker safety during routine operations and incidents.
“The safety of our workforce, the public and the environment remain our highest priority, both during operations and in response to events like this,” St. John said.
Nuclear facility struggling to complete construction projects, report says
In a separate report published in May, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted a rebuild of WIPP’s ventillation system, including new air filter buildings and an intake shaft, would not be completed in the previously expected timeline.
The report pointed to numerous delays at WIPP for a more than $200 million rebuild of its ventilation system – work needed to increase underground airflow.
Staffing vacancies at the WIPP site were a key contributor to the delays, the report read.
When completed, the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) will increase airflow in the underground to 540,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm), from its present level of about 170 cfm.
Airflow was restricted at WIPP following an accidental radiological release in 2014, and its restoration via the SSCVS could allow mining and waste emplacement to occur simultaneously and strengthen WIPP’s ability to meet disposal deadlines.
The project was initially expected to be complete by 2022 but was pushed back to 2025 amid delays in the work and termination of the initial subcontractor.
It was also expected to almost double in cost by up to $198 million, per the GAO.
“On August 31, 2020, the subcontractor constructing the SSCVS was terminated due to poor performance,” read the May report. According to EM officials, the subcontractor had submitted an unusual number of requests to change the design of the project, which the WIPP (management and operations) contractor approved.
The GAO also reported increases in cost of the SSCVS were expected.
“DOE’s construction project to improve the ventilation system is part of its plans to ensure that WIPP can meet DOE’s anticipated needs for waste disposal,” the report read. “However, the department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans.”
The report also cited a lack of experience on the part of Nuclear Waste Partnership in executive large capital projects.
“DOE officials said that officials managing the project at the Carlsbad Field Office and the prime contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, did not have prior experience with managing a capital asset project,” the report read.
And with a new contractor expected to replace NWP this year, the GAO said the project could be at even greater risk, and recommended experience in large projects be a main requirement for the new contractor.
“The prime contractor is responsible for overseeing this construction project as well as others on site, so this transition could create management issues and also lead to higher-than-estimated administrative costs,” the report read.
Similar concerns were raised for the air intake shaft, which the New Mexico Environment Department approved via a permit modification last year, but faced legal challenges from multiple nongovernmental groups and supply chain struggles.
Concerns were also raised in a March GAO report that the DOE had not updated its WIPP risk register, which identified projects and aspects of projects that could be at risk of delay, and strategies to mitigate such issues.
This could lead to increased costs and impede wasting shipping schedules, per the report.
“Without these updates, DOE may not have an achievable WIPP schedule, which could in turn create shipping delays and cost increases for the sites that are generating the waste,” the report read.
To address its concerns, the GAO recommended the DOE devise corrective action plans for the projects and update its risk register and produce reports on such activities.