DOE Admits Major String Of Safety Failures At WIPP

The Department of Energy held another town hall meeting in Carlsbad NM on the series of incidents at the WIPP plutonium storage facility Thursday night.

The DOE investigation of the truck fire incident concluded that the event was entirely preventable.

The 29 year old salt truck caught fire in the mine weeks before a leak incident closed the mine. Trucks at WIPP that operate underground are supposed to have a fire suppression system installed on the truck. This truck had the fire suppression system removed some time around 1995. Truck wash stations had also been removed from the mine at some point. These were cited as a measure that could have prevented the fire. Large oil spots were found on the mine floor and one such spot contributed to the fire. Used tires and other waste were being stored in the mine, creating fuel for the fire.

A number of other safety measures had been subverted or degraded contributing to the incident. Containment doors had been wired open. This prevented them from being closed remotely. Sensors and lighting in the mine were found to be inadequate. Safety air/gas masks to be used so workers could safely leave the mine were cumbersome and hard to find. The safety lighting system intended to help guide workers out of the mine was blocked by “piles of stuff” along the walls in the mine.

These failures are only what was cited as contributing to the truck fire incident. DOE has yet to release any findings for the ongoing failure and radiation release that happened weeks later.

DOE did say that the reopening of the mine is still up in the air and that an alternative temporary location for WIPP waste is being looked for. The DOE reps did complain that their requests for maintenance funding had been rejected due to budget cuts.

As far as ongoing work they said they are pulling 47 filters per day from the HEPA system for testing. They have requested more air sensors from DOE to set up a 5 mile radius set of air monitors. There are currently only 3 monitors being used. They plan to do some surface water testing but didn’t give more details.

Not mentioned at the DOE town hall but published by local media about the same time, the contractor’s head of WIPP has been demoted and moved to another job. Farok Sharif will be working on the plan for alternative storage of WIPP material while former DOE employee Bob McQuinn will take over the management of WIPP on the contractor side at the plant.

This series of admissions raises even more questions about what may have transpired in the mine one month ago today that caused the plutonium release to the environment.

A huge thanks to Barry who sat in on the town hall and documented the events that took place.

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