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WIPP officials focus on safety

CARLSBAD — Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials emphasized employee safety during Thursday night’s town hall meeting.

At the meeting, officials went over what is new about the recovery process and addressed concerns about how the facility is ensuring the safety of its workers both now and in future activities.

Joe Franco, manager of the Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office, said about 50 personnel are entering the underground on a daily basis.

Also, WIPP is preparing to start bolting in contaminated areas, while more than 60 percent of the underground is categorized as uncontaminated, Franco said.

In addition to giving updates on the recovery process, a large part of the town hall was used to discuss safety at the WIPP facility.

“Worker’s safety is and always will be a number one priority during the recovery process and in the future,” Franco said at the start of the meeting.

The facility came under some scrutiny earlier this month after emails obtained by the Santa Fe New Mexican showed that workers might have been at risk.

On Feb. 14, radiation leaked into the air after a drum lid cracked open, following a chemical reaction, according to archived stories.

On Thursday, Nuclear Waste Partnership Deputy Recovery Manager Tammy Reynolds went into a lengthy explanation on how setting the safety standards for a facility like WIPP works.

Reynolds explained that when building and operating a nuclear facility like WIPP, they have to look at everything from a safety standpoint. Because of that, officials decided to make a document that lists everything that could or might be a safety hazard at the facility.

Related: Number of workers allowed in WIPP underground doubles

An example Reynolds gave was how for a normal waste hoist you would need only a few cables, but the waste hoist at WIPP has more because you would never want an accident with the WIPP waste hoisted.

An ESS, or Evaluation of the Safety of the Situation, is a document that becomes part of the foundational safety analysis that occurs in the beginning process of creating a facility such as WIPP, Reynolds said.

An ESS is a way for the facility to put new safety controls into place that will ensure worker safety when conducting any activity, particularly with the activities being performed during the recovery process.

“Workers are responsible to adhere to these controls, and management is responsible that workers understand controls,” Reynolds said. She explained that once an ESS document is approved, it goes through the implementation process.

“It’s almost like an interview process, where we sit down with the employee (who) communicates to us through their words what the control is, why it’s there, and what they will do to put the control in place,” Reynolds said.

She said that everything WIPP officials have been doing has been a learning process.

Every time an activity is performed in the underground, there’s an opportunity for a lesson. With these lessons learned, then officials will go back and visit a previously established ESS and revise it to control a particular activity in the better way.

Reynolds also said that the workers involved are encouraged to give feedback to a manager in order to improve the way certain activities are performed.

Another recovery process update involved pumping water out of the sump, or pit, that has built up. Workers have not been able to pump the water out of the sump on a regular basis since the February incident.

Reynolds said if all the water is pumped out of the sump, then the waste hoist can be at full service.

The next town hall is scheduled for January. Franco said representatives from the Los Alamos National Laboratory are expected to be in attendance for this meeting.


Sarah Matott can be reached at 575-628-5546.


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