Salt-hauling Vehicle Catches Fire in WIPP Underground


Runs 2/7/14 through 2/14/14

(THEME UP AND UNDER)  This is the CCNS News Update, an overview of the latest nuclear safety issues, brought to you every week by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.  Here is this week’s top headline:

 *  Salt-hauling Vehicle Catches Fire in WIPP Underground

On the morning of Wednesday, February 5th, a truck used for hauling salt in the underground mine at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) caught fire for as yet unknown reasons.  Immediate attempts to put out the fire were unsuccessful.  All workers were safely evacuated to the surface.  Six employees were treated for smoke inhalation at the Carlsbad Medical Center and then released.  Operations were suspended and shipments to the site were stopped.

WIPP is the nation’s only disposal site for plutonium-contaminated waste from nuclear bombs.  The football-field-size disposal rooms are located 2,150 feet below the surface of the earth in the Permian salt beds about 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico.  The fire occurred in the northern part of the underground mine, near the salt handling shaft from which smoke billowed at the surface.  The shaft is more than 1,500 feet away from the nearest waste disposal rooms.  Federal law allows WIPP to hold up to 6.2 million cubic feet of radioactive and hazardous waste; slightly more than half that amount has been emplaced since March 1999.

Later in the day, five members of a mine rescue team entered the mine, confirmed that the air was safe to breathe, and that the fire was extinguished.  As of 1:05 am on Thursday, February 6th, the emergency situation was declared over by the Department of Energy (DOE), the federal agency in charge of the site.  As of the morning of Friday, February 7th, DOE has yet to provide an official report of the cause of the fire and why fire suppression systems did not quickly extinguish the blaze, among other things.

Although there is no underground or surface air monitoring at the salt handling shaft near the fire, WIPP officials emphasized that there was no release of radioactive and toxic chemicals, apparently because of the size of the fire and the distance from the waste.

Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, in Albuquerque, said, “A fire in any mine is a very bad thing. And this kind of accident is never supposed to happen at WIPP.  The fire points out that diesel-fueled underground vehicles pose a fire danger and that mining should be done only as necessary.  Thus, mining for non-WIPP-related activities, such as the proposed heater tests, should be terminated.”

Hancock added, “Since a planned maintenance outage is scheduled for February 14th to March 10th, no more waste should be trucked to WIPP until the maintenance is over, a full investigation is completed and made public, and actions are taken to prevent any future fires in the mine.”


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