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Boardman writes: "More than seven months after the release of Plutonium and other radioactive materials into the environment from the failed Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) on Valentine's Day 2014, the only U.S. nuclear weapons waste repository remains closed and unsafe, with little certainty as to when, or even if, it will be able to re-open."

A photograph looking over the top of nuclear waste emplaced at WIPP in drums, waste boxes and overpacks in Panel 7 where the release of radioactive material took place. (photo: WIPP)
A photograph looking over the top of nuclear waste emplaced at WIPP in drums, waste boxes and overpacks in Panel 7 where the release of radioactive material took place. (photo: WIPP)

Months After Plutonium Leak, U.S. Nuclear Waste Facility Still Shut

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

23 September 14


U.S. Energy Dept. denies fake claim, ignores serious reports

ore than seven months after the release of Plutonium and other radioactive materials into the environment from the failed Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) on Valentine’s Day 2014, the only U.S. nuclear weapons waste repository remains closed and unsafe, with little certainty as to when, or even if, it will be able to re-open. Nuclear experts continue to argue about just what actually happened last winter, and why, and how much radioactivity was released from the contaminated underground storage area near Carlsbad, New Mexico. To date, WIPP investigators have identified just one radioactive waste drum that ruptured underground.

According to a recent Reuters report, a “second container of Plutonium-contaminated debris may have contributed” to the WIPP radiation release. On September 18 Reuters, apparently alone among news media, attributed knowledge of this possible second ruptured waste container to a government field office manager saying: "What has come out insinuates we have another potential drum.”

In response to this speculation, the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) issued a “WIPP Update” on September 19 that, while it did not name its employee who was the source of the story, still appeared to deny his story flatly:

Recent news reports have incorrectly suggested that there is a second breached drum in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) underground facility. There is no evidence to suggest a release from a second drum. The site conducted initial surveys that showed no evidence of a radiological release from Panel 6, and we have seen no evidence since then that suggests anything different.

This is something of a slippery non-denial denial. And the government evades the actual news reports.

Accurate news reports in New Mexico didn’t mention “a second breached drum,” as DOE states. The accurate news reported that the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) had identified a second drum containing the same ingredients (including a lead-lined glove) as the drum that burst in February, raising the possibility of a second breached drum. The first burst drum is in the section called Panel 7, in Room 7.

There are 678 other drums from LANL that are considered to be at “higher risk” of bursting due to the mixture of their contents, similar to what was in the burst drum. More than 600 of these “higher risk” drums are already stored underground at WIPP, 57 remain at LANL for further processing, and 113 are in temporary shallow burial at another nuclear waste facility, Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas.

Report to legislators: “we still don’t have a clue how it happened”

New Mexico legislators heard from Terry Wallace Jr. (LANL’s WIPP Recovery Leader and Principal Associate Director for Global Security) on August 15, 2014. He said that some 300 LANL scientists had performed roughly 3,000 experiments with a variety of chemical mixtures in an effort to determine what caused the failed drum to burst. The scientists have tried to duplicate the chemical contents of the “higher risk” drums, but have not reached any conclusive result. The experiments have created reactions that generated hundreds of degrees of heat, but found no evidence of what might have set off the reaction that caused the underground drum to burst in February. No one yet knows how the 10,000-year-secure waste storage site failed, or whether it’s likely to fail again, or 600 more times, or whether the failure was a unique event with an unknowable cause.

At another meeting with legislators on September 16, 2014, LANL’s Wallace discussed the breach potential of the second drum, which contains a mixtures thought to be the same as what was in the burst drum. “I cannot guarantee that second drum won’t go (have a chemical reaction), nor can I guarantee that all conditions are likely to make it go,” Wallace told legislators, according to another accurate news report in the Carlsbad Current-Argus.

During the 1990s, WIPP was originally promoted as a safe storage site for the nation’s nuclear weapons waste, a salt mine half a mile underground that would be secure for 10,000 years without leaking. WIPP took in its first waste on March 26, 1999. The first known release of Plutonium and other radioactive elements happened less than 15 years later. Since then, the only certainty about WIPP has been uncertainty. Further, the DOE response to the imaginary “second breached drum” glosses over the reality of continuing spikes of radiation in the environment around WIPP.

Radiation danger and government deceit make an ugly reality

This kind of denial is consistent with more than six decades of U.S. government deceit about the effects of ionizing radiation. Another example is presently part of the DOE’s “WIPP Recovery” website on the “fact sheet” page that discusses 13 WIPP employees exposed to radiation during “The Radiological Release on Feb 14, 2014.” The number of exposed workers, first reported by DOE as zero, eventually rose to 21. DOE reassures the reader that these 13 employees “received internal contamination…. [But] the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result.”

That may be true as far as statistical odds go, but it blurs the reality that the exposed workers inhaled Plutonium and other alpha-radiation emitters which, when lodged in the lungs or any other part of the body, remain there effectively forever. Only a very careful reading of the DOE “fact sheet” would lead a reader to infer that this is precisely the life-threatening situation these workers are now in. Nowhere does DOE mention the fact that alpha radiation is a carcinogen.

The DOE “fact sheet” also states that beta and gamma radiation “are not related to this event,” the WIPP radiation release in February. This appears to be a false statement. Plutonium and Americium, which DOE acknowledges were released, both emit beta as well as alpha radiation. The New Mexico Environment Dept. (NMED) has a DOE Oversight Bureau that has produced detailed calculations of the radiation releases from WIPP. These NMED calculations show both alpha and beta radiation releases, as well as three gamma ray emitters, Beryllium, Potassium, and Thorium.

Secrecy and deceit are more important to U.S. nuclear arms build-up

With President Obama’s recent announcement of significant expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s megadeath capabilities, LANL and WIPP are among the facilities that expect to see their activities significantly increased. This would be a global peace issue in any event, even with facilities operating at peak performance. But these two are among 17 U.S. nuclear weapons facilities that don’t work well or don’t work at all.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) reached that judgment in a September 2 report to the Secretary of Energy. The five-member board later released the 22-page report (scheduled for publication September 23 in the Federal Register), with little media attention (Santa Fe New Mexican, an exception). The result of a three-year review of emergency preparedness at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, the report was clearly reactive to the WIPP failure in particular:

On March 21, 2014, and March 28, 2014, the Board communicated to the Secretary of Energy its concerns regarding shortcomings in the responses to a truck fire and radioactive material release event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico…. Many of the site-specific issues noted at WIPP are prevalent at other sites with defense nuclear facilities, as documented in the attached report….

Based on an evaluation of the problems observed with emergency preparedness and response at DOE sites with defense nuclear facilities, the most important underlying root causes of these problems are ineffective implementation of existing requirements, inadequate revision of requirements to address lessons learned and needed improvements to site programs, and weaknesses in DOE verification and validation of readiness of its sites with defense nuclear facilities….

Such deficiencies can ultimately result in the failure to recognize and respond appropriately to indications of an emergency, as was seen in the recent radioactive material release event at WIPP. Therefore, the Board believes that DOE has not comprehensively and consistently demonstrated its ability to adequately protect workers and the public in the event of an emergency.

Or, to put it in less bureaucratic language: the Energy Dept. and its contractors are not doing their jobs, which pretty much puts us all at risk. And for this we’re paying how many millions, or is it billions, of dollars?

Meanwhile, LANL, which is having such trouble managing its waste, is likely to be ordered to step up its production of Plutonium pit triggers for nuclear weapons, creating even more waste with to WIPP to go to. The Los Alamos lab has produced eleven or fewer Plutonium pits a year for more than two decades. This production is expected to increase by eightfold, to 80 pits a year.

That high-paced pit production will reportedly be housed in “Plutonium Facility 4 at Los Alamos, a 36-year-old building on a seismically active fault with structural vulnerabilities that prompted the lab to close it more than a year ago.” According to LANL, Plutonium Facility 4 “is the only fully operational, full capability plutonium facility in the nation.” Not to worry about the earthquake fault, though. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board long ago (October 2009) noted the “severity” and “urgency of the problem and recommended that LANL:

Implement near-term actions and compensatory measures to reduce significantly the consequences of seismically induced events,… [and]

Develop and implement an acceptable safety strategy for seismically induced events….”

A LANL spokesperson recently said of Plutonium Facility 4, “we continue to work on resuming the remaining activities as quickly and safely as possible.” What could possibly go wrong?

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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