Report cites ‘lack of rigor’ in WIPP safety protocols

March 15, 2014 • Local News

Specially-trained workers make unmanned tests inside a nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad on March 7. (AP Photo)

A report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Energy states a “lack of rigor” in safety training, emergency response and a lack of oversight contributed to the Feb. 5 truck fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad — the first of two back-to-back accidents that included a Feb. 14 radiation leak that affected 17 employees and shut the facility down.

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. “

The truck blaze apparently was ignited by a buildup of oil and other combustible materials that should have been regularly cleaned off the vehicle, according to the [auth] report. The truck also was operating without an automatic fire suppression system, the Department of Energy report said.

“The preventative and corrective maintenance program did not prevent or correct the buildup of combustible fluids on the salt truck. There is a distinct difference between the way waste-handling and non-waste-handling vehicles are maintained,” the 187-page DOE report states.

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.”

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 repository and it said a series of repeat deficiencies identified by an independent oversight board had gone unresolved.

According to the report, the training and qualification of the operator was inadequate to ensure proper response to a vehicle fire. They did not initially notify the Central Monitoring Room that there was a fire or describe the fire’s location.

Likewise, the Central Monitoring Room Operation’s response to the fire, including evaluation and protective actions, was less than adequate, the report stated.

Elements of the emergency/preparedness and response program were ineffective and a nuclear versus mine culture exists, where there are significant differences in the maintenance of waste-handling versus non-waste-handling equipment, according to the report.

It also states that NWP’s Contractor Assurance System was ineffective in identifying the conditions and maintenance program inadequacies associated with the root cause of this event.

The Carlsbad DOE Field Office was also said to be ineffective in implementing line management oversight programs and processes that would have identified the contractor’s weaknesses and the conditions associated with the root cause of this event, according to the report.

Repeat deficiencies were identified in DOE and external agencies assessments, including Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board emergency management, fire protection, maintenance, Carlsbad Field Office oversight, and work planning and control; but those weaknesses were allowed to remain unresolved for extended periods of time without ensuring effective site response, according to the report.

“There are elements of the Conduct of Operations program that demonstrate a lack of rigor and discipline commensurate with the operation of a Hazard Category 2 Facility,” the report concludes.

An investigation of a radiation release nine days later that contaminated 17 workers and sent toxic particles into the air around the plant is expected to be complete in a few weeks. At this point, officials say they are unsure if the fire and the radiation release are related. The mine has been shuttered since the Feb. 14 release, but investigators hope to be able to get below next week to see what happened.

At a community meeting in Carlsbad on Thursday, Joe Franco, who runs the DOE’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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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