Zack Ponce for Carlsbad Current-Argus, N.M.
CARLSBAD — Sen. Tom Udall says recent investigation reports into accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are “very troubling.”
A Department of Energy Accident Investigation Board blamed the Feb. 5 underground vehicle fire and subsequent Feb. 14 radiation leak on a lack of oversight and erosion of safety culture by all parties involved with the nuclear waste disposal facility.
Udall said he was concerned about the culture at WIPP while responding to a question about the facility on Tuesday during his weekly teleconference with media.
“As our nation’s only deep geologic repository for transuranic waste, it must be held to the highest standards,” he said. “Anything less is unacceptable. The workers and the surrounding community demand that.”
Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private contractor responsible for WIPP, has already taken several actions intended to change the culture for the better, making multiple high-level management changes since the accidents. NWP’s parent company, URS, hired Bob McQuinn in March to replace Farok Sharif as the NWP president and project manager, as well as made several changes to its leadership board.
The DOE stopped shipments of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to a private facility in Andrews County, Texas last Friday as a precautionary measure. One of the working theories into the cause of WIPP’s radiation leak is that the waste at Los Alamos had a chemical reaction while stored inside the drums.
The DOE said Wednesday that it appreciates and understands the concerns raised by Udall and that the facility won’t be reopened until the findings in both incident reports are satisfactorily addressed.
“The teams were thorough and honest in their appraisals of the causes that contributed to these incidents,” a DOE spokesperson said in an email about the accident investigation teams appointed by the Office of Environmental Management. “The DOE takes these findings seriously, and we are already working on the corrective actions needed to restore the safety culture at WIPP.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich and Congressman Steve Pearce have also been critical of DOE’s handling of WIPP, especially in its communications with the public.
Operations at WIPP were immediately halted once the underground fire raged on Feb. 4, and the facility’s immediate future remains unclear. Udall hopes the accidents were a wake-up-call for the DOE and NWP to focus on safety.
“As we move forward to clean up and reopen WIPP, I expect that all levels of management at the Department of Energy and at WIPP will take all necessary corrective action to ensure key safety management programs are in place and reinstate a culture where safety is a top priority,” he said.
Reporter Zack Ponce can be reached at (575) 689-7402.