LAUREN VILLAGRAN for Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES — The lead investigator into a radiation leak at a New Mexico nuclear waste repository blasted management’s response to the incident, citing inadequacies in safety and maintenance programs, among other trouble areas.
Ted Wyka, chairman of the Department of Energy’s accident investigation board, briefed the public on the board’s initial conclusions on how the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant performed during and in the wake of the Feb. 14 radiation release. He spoke at a weekly town hall meeting in Carlsbad that was also webcast.
Wyka cited WIPP management’s “failure to fully understand, characterize and control the radiological hazard.”
It was also announced at the meeting that a team that went in Wednesday still could not pinpoint the source of the leak.
The team did not spot any catastrophic event, such as a collapsed roof.
Among the criticisms contained in the DOE accident investigation report, Wyka cited inadequacies in ventilation design underground that allowed radiation to escape to the surface. He criticized the lack of an adequate safety culture and oversight, pointing out that workers told the board “they do not feel comfortable identifying issues.”
The litany of criticisms extended to both the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the WIPP contractor.
“We take their findings very seriously,” said Field Office Manager Joe Franco. “We will work through the process to make sure everything is corrected.”
The report is expected to be released to the public today. It includes 49 judgments of areas of need, Wyka said.
Radiation escaped the underground nuclear waste repository on Feb. 14, contaminating 21 workers with non-hazardous levels of radiation. It was the first such radiation leak at the facility, which had boasted a relatively clean operating record during its 15 years of operation.
WIPP has been closed to shipments since Feb. 5 after a truck caught fire in the salt mine and forced the evacuation of dozens of personnel. Officials have said that incident and the leak are unrelated.
“Much action has already been taken but much more improvement will be needed before we resume nuclear operations,” said Bob McQuinn, NWP project manager.
Also Wednesday, WIPP managers reported that the latest investigation team to go underground to search for the source of the leak on Wednesday did not discover the source of the problem.
“There were no visible or obvious signs of any event,” said Deputy Recovery Manager Tammy Reynolds, noting that the team did not see a roof collapse, which was one scenario that had been discussed as a possible cause of the incident.
“Some event occurred but it was not something catastrophic that we were able to see today.”