There were shortcomings in safety training, emergency response and oversight found by federal investigators at the troubled southeastern New Mexico nuclear waste dump where a truck caught fire and 17 workers ended up contaminated by a radiation leak.
A report released Friday on the investigation into the first of back-to-back accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad said a Feb. 5 truck blaze apparently ended up ignited by a buildup of oil and other combustible materials that personnel should regularly clean off the vehicle. The truck also was operating without an automatic fire suppression system, the Department of Energy (DoE) report said. And one of several mistakes made in the chaotic moments that followed switched the filtration systems in the mine a half-mile underground and sent smoke billowing into areas where workers expected to have “good air.”
The report also identified problems with safety culture at the federal government’s only permanent repository for waste from the nation’s nuclear bomb-building facilities, and it said a series of repeat deficiencies identified by an independent oversight board had gone unresolved.
New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich called the report “deeply concerning.”
“Fortunately, no one was hurt,” the Democrats said in a joint statement. “The community of Carlsbad and the nation expect WIPP to operate with the highest level of safety. The board has identified a number of serious safety concerns that will need to be fully addressed. We believe all levels of management at the Department of Energy and at WIPP must take the recommendations from the board very seriously and fully implement them. ”
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district includes the plant, applauded the DoE for a transparent report that highlights “the sloppy procedures that caused the fire.”
An investigation of a radiation release nine days later that contaminated 17 workers and sent toxic particles into the air around the plant should be ready in a few weeks. At this point, officials said they are unsure if the fire and the radiation release are related. Officials have closed the mine ever since the Feb. 14 release, but investigators hope to be able to get below next week to see what happened.
The accidents are the first major incidents at the repository, which began taking radioactive waste 15 years ago.
Just hours before the report on the truck fire ended up previewed at a community meeting Thursday evening, the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant demoted the facility’s president.
At the community meeting, the DoE official who led the investigative team, Ted Wyka, said the fire probably started about 30 minutes before the driver saw the orange glow from the engine compartment and tried to put it out. But the automatic fire-suppression system that might have detected the heat earlier was not active, Wyka said, and the systems activated by the driver didn’t work.
Wyka praised the 86 workers who were underground when the fire started around 11 a.m. on Feb. 5 for their response. But he said a number of systems failed. For example, he said emergency strobe lights did not end up activated for five minutes, not all workers heard the evacuation announcement and workers had trouble using their emergency air canisters. One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration mode, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.
Six workers ended up treated for smoke inhalation after the fire.
“We were pretty lucky that day,” he said. “… Despite all the safety systems that sort of let them down, the workforce down in the mine that day was very calm, collected and in many ways heroic.”
Wyka said the workers “did everything they could” to notify colleagues to get out, even before the evacuation alarm sounded. “Some stayed behind to make sure everyone got in the elevator to get out.”
The biggest lesson, he said, is about the mindset at the site.
“This is not just a mine, not just an operating nuclear facility — this is both,” Wyka said, noting trucks used in the part of the mine where waste is hauled are kept much cleaner than the old trucks used to haul salt a half mile underground, where workers are digging massive waste storage rooms a half mile in the 2,000-foot thick ancient Permian Sea bed. They also have active fire-suppression systems. The truck that caught fire was hauling salt for removal from the mine.
Joe Franco, who runs the Department of Energy’s site office at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, choked up as he addressed the meeting, telling the community that at first, he took the findings personally.
“It’s one of those things, being part of the family, one of those things that’s a little tough,” he said. “But I think what’s important (is) we definitely got away with not … having anyone seriously hurt. So we need to learn from that. It is what I wanted to hear, and I wanted the truth. We don’t need any sugar-coating.”