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The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant located in New Mexico.

DOE report finds ‘negative trend’ in WIPP operations

A Department of Energy oversight team found an overall “negative trend” in the operation of a southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository following two serious accidents, but plant managers say progress has been made since the review concluded.

In a memo distributed to employees and obtained by the Journal , DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments analyzed operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant over a year through May — a period in which WIPP has been trying to recover from an underground fire and subsequent, unrelated radiation release.

“During this period, strong and unrealistic schedule pressures on the workforce contributed to poor safety performance, and incidents during that time are indicators of the potential for a future serious safety incident,” the memo said.

In addition to the effect of schedule pressures on safety, the memo flagged “a backlog of hundreds of preventative maintenance items” and the use of “extensive overtime” that could force workers to work “past the point of safety.”

Philip Breidenbach, president of site contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, said NWP is taking the report seriously but said significant progress has been made over the past four months on many of the issues raised.

“We agree those were issues last year,” Breidenbach said. “We have focused substantial effort on making improvements in those areas.”

In December 2014, NWP was delinquent on 484 preventative maintenance items, Breidenbach said — things like vehicle oil changes or equipment inspections. The company cut its to-do list down to 161 items by the end of August and further reduced the list by half last month, he said.

“We will get it to zero over the next few months,” he said. “It has been an extreme focus for us.”

DOE this summer backed off a target reopen date of March 2016 to ease the pressure on WIPP, which has been closed since the February 2014 incidents.

In related news, Feds OK $73M settlement in WIPP leak.

This article was written by LAUREN VILLAGRAN from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.