A combination of poor management, lapses in safety and a lack of proper procedures resulted in a radiation leak that forced the indefinite closure of the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository in New Mexico.
And the catch is, it didn’t have to be that way, said a team of investigators.
That was the conclusion in a final report released by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Accident Investigation Board. Officials reviewed the findings Thursday night during a community meeting in Carlsbad, NM.
The investigators spent more than a year looking into the cause of the radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico.
Like a separate team of technical experts, they too found that a chemical reaction inside a drum of waste packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory forced the lid open, allowing radiation to escape. The contents included nitrate salt residues and organic cat litter used to soak up moisture in the waste.
Aside from lab managers, the report places blame on Energy Department headquarters, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the repository. It highlights numerous failures — from Los Alamos lab not having an adequate system for identifying and controlling hazards to federal nuclear officials not ensuring the existence of a “strong safety culture” at the lab.
Investigators found a failure by managers to resolve employee concerns where the final result could have treated problems before the waste shipped from Los Alamos to the repository.
Accident Investigation Board Chair Ted Wyka said during the town hall some workers reported seeing foaming and yellowish smoke while repackaging waste. After short discussions with their supervisors, they went back to work on the assembly line.
That information did not make it up to lab managers, he said.
“It wasn’t an issue of malice,” Wyka said. “It was more of an issue of just not understanding … the issue, the reactions that they were working with, the hazards involved and the controls.”
Lab Director Charlie McMillian acknowledged in a staff memo there were “serious deficiencies” in the lab’s processes and procedures.
“We now know from the investigations that if (Los Alamos National Laboratory) had followed certain basic steps, this event would not have happened. Also, if we had complied with our hazardous waste permit, we would have avoided the serious legal and credibility issues we now face,” McMillian said.
The Energy Department and its contractors are facing $54 million in fines from the state of New Mexico for the failures that led to the mishap. Negotiations are ongoing, and the state has suggested more financial penalties are possible.
With the repository closed indefinitely, efforts to clean up decades of Cold War-era waste at federal facilities around the country are in a holding pattern. Federal officials say resuming full operations at the repository could take years and cost more than a half-billion dollars.