.News Update 8/15/08

Waste Drum Punctured at WIPP

August 15, 2008

On August 3, a waste drum was punctured during disposal activities underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The drum contained radioactive and hazardous wastes from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

WIPP is the nation's dump for waste generated from the production of nuclear weapons, which is located in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. Waste packed in 55-gallon drums is disposed of in salt formations 2,150 feet below ground. Waste is shipped from Department of Energy (DOE) sites around the country to WIPP.

The 55-gallon waste container that was punctured was grouped with six other drums, called a "seven pack." Apparently, while being lifted by a forklift to be placed on top of another group of drums, one of drums hit a nearby metal frame and was punctured. The horizontal gash is about 1 ½ to 2 inches long. WIPP officials do not believe that any radioactive or hazardous waste was released based on checking the drum and because the air sampling devices showed no contaminants. Workers initially placed tape over the puncture and the drum was repackaged into an 85-gallon overpack drum on August 6.

In response to the accident, all shipments to WIPP were stopped. Roger Nelson, Chief Scientist for DOE, said that WIPP was placed on a "safety pause" during the review of all involved operations.

Nelson also said, "[i]n this particular case, we believe this accident was avoidable."

This was the first shipment from LANL since shipments were stopped in June. LANL shipments were halted for almost two months because a waste drum was shipped with liquids that are prohibited at WIPP. That drum was subsequently shipped back to LANL. The drum was supposed to be tagged and set aside so that it would not be shipped.

An investigation was launched to determine the cause and what needs to be done to prevent such a mistake from happening again. DOE is working on correcting how the tags are attached to the drums.

After inspections, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed shipments to begin again, but denied shipments of certain wastes until a further review is completed. In addition, EPA wants to check practices at other sites to ensure that they have operating procedures in place that will prevent recurrence of prohibited waste being shipped.

In 2007, another drum containing prohibited liquids was shipped from the Idaho National Laboratory to WIPP. That drum was shipped back to Idaho. The new procedures to prevent such shipments from traveling to WIPP did not work at LANL.

Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, of Albuquerque, commented about the problems at LANL. He said, "LANL has a long history of making mistakes in shipments to WIPP. Because of those mistakes, shipments have previously been suspended for more than a year. Major improvements are needed at LANL."

Further, Hancock said, "The punctured drum also shows that improvements are needed in WIPP's operations to prevent other drums from being punctured, which could expose workers to substantial risks."

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