Poor equipment maintenance to blame for WIPP fire

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) – The Department of Energy has concerns about safety at New Mexico’s underground nuclear waste repository, WIPP.

In a new report about a fire that happened nine days before a Valentine’s Day radiation leak, the DOE says WIPP failed to observe basic safety measures.

A salt truck caught fire, filling the mine with thick black smoke.

Eighty-six workers donned emergency gear and were hauled to the surface.

Some heroically stayed behind to make sure everyone was out.


DOE investigators lauded workers, but say it was all preventable, citing many lapses in safety procedures.

The 29-year-old salt truck was not being maintained properly, according to the report.

Leaking fluids built up in the engine area and were not cleaned off.

Other vehicles were found in the same condition.

Emergency procedures were not followed. The investigators blamed that on inadequate drills.

Some alarms were delayed or could not be heard by everyone in the mine, delaying evacuation.

Some workers had trouble getting their emergency breathing masks on.

Incorrect control of the ventilation system actually made smoke worse in the underground tunnels.

Some signs marking escape routes were blocked from view.

Investigators blame the contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, and DOE managers for failing to detect the problems.

At a Thursday night town hall meeting, Carlsbad DOE Office manager Joe Franco was briefly overcome when discussing the safety lapses.

“I tell you that when I started to go through those, I took it personal,” Franco said.

Franco pledged WIPP will learn from its mistakes and get better.

Meanwhile, the quest to find out what caused a massive underground radiation leak about half a mile away from the fire site and nine days after the fire continues.

Because of contamination, no one has been underground yet to find out what happened.

Probes sent down two shafts show there is a safe area where a re-entry team can go.

The inspection of the two vertical shafts is set for this weekend. Before that happens, WIPP miners will evaluate the integrity of those two shafts to make sure that when a crew goes to the bottom they will be able to get back out.

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