Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the federal nuclear waste disposal facility shut down earlier this year after a truck fire and a chemical reaction inside a waste drum below the surface, is now facing 52 safety violations, federal officials said late last week.
The violations came after multiple visits in January and June to the federally-owned facility located about 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, NM, said officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The citations were for infractions such as general workplace tidiness, exposed electrical wiring and missing safety guards on equipment, and many of them were found by MSHA inspectors months after WIPP operators vowed a change in workplace culture.
A truck caught on fire at WIPP underground on Feb. 5, causing evacuations by all personnel to the surface. Shortly after, on Feb. 14, a chemical reaction inside a nuclear waste drum caused trace amounts of americium and plutonium to escape up to a half mile outside the facility.
A Department of Energy (DoE) Accident Investigation Board charged with looking into the underground fire cited ineffective maintenance and poor safety procedures by Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) as the root cause leading to the Feb. 5 fire. The federal investigators said there was a breakdown in the safety culture at WIPP, and also blamed the DoE Carlsbad Field Office for poor oversight and the DoE headquarters in Washington for not adequately funding the nuclear facility.
Despite MSHA’s findings, the DoE and the NWP, an independent contractor hired to manage all operations at WIPP, maintained safety was their top priority.
“The Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership take the citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration very seriously,” said Tuesday in a release from both organizations. “Immediately following the MSHA visit, corrective actions were implemented and only one citation remains open. WIPP’s primary goal is the safety of our workforce, the environment and the community. We will implement lessons learned and verify all corrective actions are completed.”
The only issue not yet fixed at WIPP is a missing equipment guard that is currently under design and in the process of fabrication at an offsite location. They will install the guard as soon as they get it from the manufacturer.
Some of MSHA’s discoveries included: holes in the grating of a top deck, a handrail did not extend on a waste hoist drum to prevent a fall, a fire extinguisher on a forklift did not have an annual maintenance check performed, the inner electrical conductors on a table saw in the maintenance shop went unprotected, and the valve on a carbon dioxide bottle did not have protection. Regulators also noted occasions in which items such as boxes, furniture, and mechanical items blocked walkways in the facility.