Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear repository near Carlsbad announced a town hall meeting was scheduled for next week to provide a public report on the results of testing for a ventilation fan that could be contaminated with radiation.
Use of the fan was halted in 2014, after an accidental radiological release caused by a mispackaged drum which led to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations: receiving shipments of low-level transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste and permanently disposing of it in the underground repository.
Restarting the fan was intended to increase airflow in the underground, which were limited following the 2014 incident due to radioactive contamination in parts of the facility.
The added airflow would allow WIPP to conduct more maintenance operations in the underground and was intended to increase worker safety underground.
“The restart of the 700-C fan will help WIPP provide additional airflow underground, improving air quality and allowing WIPP to better support (the Department of Energy’s) operational mission,” read a statement from WIPP.
The fan was not to be used during waste emplacement activities. It’s use was expected to continue until a rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) was complete in the coming years.
The town hall was scheduled for 6 p.m. April 15 via Zoom. Those interested can register online using the link found on WIPP’s Facebook page.
The four-hour test was conducted on Jan. 31, where the fan turned on temporarily to monitor any radiation read from air monitors around its location at the WIPP site.
Operations at the site were halted at the site while the test was conducted.
In a news release from WIPP, officials reported the test to be a success with radiation levels recorded below environmental standards.
The readings showed less radiation than the 0.008 millirem does received in background radiation one would receive while standing on Sandia Peak in Albuquerque or from a standard smoke detector, the release read.
The final calculations from the test showed the fan released a dose of radiation 5,000 times lower than the WIPP’s limit set by the EPA of 10 millirem per year.
“Based on the data analysis, experts from WIPP have verified that the test was successful, with only a minute, almost non-detectable, amount of radiological material emitted when the 700-C fan was initially restarted, as had been expected,” read a WIPP statement.
“The data indicates that the emission was less than predicted, and more than 5,000 times below the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 10 millirem per year.”
Members of the public looking to submit comments on the fan restart in advance of Thursday’s meeting were asked to do so via email to [email protected].
In a public report released Thursday, showed radiation was released by the fan at levels below expectations and government standards after samples were collected and examined at WIPP Labs in Carlsbad.
Continuous air monitors (CAMs) were used during the test, designed to trigger an alarm when radiation levels in the air spike.
At no time during the test did the CAMs set off an alarm, the report read.
There were also no concerns with radiation exceeding “stop level set points” established by WIPP officials ahead of the test to protect workers conducting the test and working on the site.
“In summary: the test did not generate any radioactive contamination (in air or on the surface) that exceeded any controls established for the test or by operational procedure or federal regulation for the safe operation of the WIPP site,” the report read.
After the test a “test and balance” will be conducted as a series of activities will be conducted to ensure the fan’s stability during its use.
The project was supported by leaders both from the City of Carlsbad and the union that represents workers in the underground, despite concerns from environmentalists and government watchdog groups that the use of the fan posed and unnecessary risk of radiation exposure.
“These are our friends and family members working at WIPP and we would be the first to express concern if we felt like there was any risk at all,” wrote Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway in a letter of support to WIPP and DOE officials. “This restart will be beneficial to the workforce and does not create risk.”
Rick Fuentes, president of United Steelworkers 12-9477 which represents waste handlers said in a letter of support the increased airflow was needed to ensure safe operations at WIPP.
“The additional airflow will improve air quality for employees working in the underground, which will allow us to better support Ground Control, Waste Emplacement, and Mining Activities,” Fuentes wrote.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.