Safety board calls WIPP incidents “near misses”

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) – The leader of an independent oversight agency has sent a pretty scathing response to New Mexico’s two senators about WIPP,  the nuclear waste plant near Carlsbad. The senators requested the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board provide its initial assessment of the two recent events at the facility.

On February 5th, there was a salt truck fire, nine days later, a release of radioactive material that contaminated 17 workers. In a letter addressed to Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Chairman Peter Winokur says neither the contractors or the federal workers were prepared for the emergencies, even calling the events “near misses”.

Winokur tells senators a number of safety measures need to be put in place to prevent emergencies like these from happening again. He called the salt truck fire preventable and says it happened because the truck was poorly maintained.

Winokur goes onto say emergency notifications were not done like they should have been. He says ventilation was improperly switched in the mine, causing smoke and gas to fill the evacuation routes.

Winokur says the safety board sent four letters to the Department of Energy that revealed flaws in WIPP’s fire protection program and, though improvements have been made, Winokur says it wasn’t enough.

He tells senators they still don’t know what caused the radiation leak but says initial responses to the release were lacking. Winokur says shelter in place weren’t given out until 10 hours after they knew there was a problem. Plus, even though contamination of workers was small, he says they were exposed to more radiation than they would have been with the proper plans in place.

Senator Tom Udall says he’s deeply troubled by these findings.

Udall says, what concerns him most was that the filters at WIPP were not operating for a short time after the fire and board still has concerns about them.

Udall explains we also need a full understanding as to what actually caused the leak and any additional steps that need to be taken to protect the Carlsbad community.

He says these safety concerns and board recommendations need to be addressed immediately.

“WIPP has had a good record for nearly 15 years but we need a zero tolerance approach to serious accidents. The community of Carlsbad and the nation expect WIPP to operate with the highest level of safety,” said Senator Udall.

Senator Udall adds, he’s asked the Environmental Protection Agency to bring in additional air monitors to get another source of information about the air at the WIPP site and in Carlsbad.

In a written statement, Senator Martin Heinrich had this to say: “I appreciate Chairman Winokur’s response to our request for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s assessment of both recent events at WIPP and the ongoing response to them. The oversight role of the Board is critical and the troubling safety concerns it identified must be taken very seriously by all levels of management at the Department of Energy and at WIPP. The community of Carlsbad and the nation expect WIPP to operate with the highest level of safety. The Accident Investigation Board’s forthcoming report on the release will be critical to fully understand what caused the radiation leak that occurred on February 14th and the steps that must be taken to ensure the safety of WIPP personnel and the Carlsbad community.”

The board says the Department of Energy needs to upgrade its safety systems and safety management programs to support future waste disposal at the plant.

Chairman Winokur says the safety board has had staff at WIPP since February 6th, gathering information and overseeing the investigation and recovery.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway and the Department of Energy will co-host a meeting with updates on WIPP recovery every Thursday beginning March 27th.

They’ll be held at the Carlsbad City Council Chambers at 101 North Halagueno Street, at 5:30 p.m.

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