Since the Department of Energy (DOE) started shipping waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in March 1999, a number of problems have occurred, including:

1. The transformer on the waste hoist (the WIPP elevator to the underground waste rooms) broke during the tenth week of operation at WIPP. As a result, over 160 drum equivalents were stored above ground in the Waste Handling Building for almost two weeks until the transformer was finally repaired;

2. The Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) sent its first shipment to WIPP on April 27, 1999. During the week of June 21, 1999, INEEL's certification to ship waste to WIPP was withdrawn after a DOE audit found waste handling and recordkeeping problems. The problems identified in the audit ranged from missing documentation and possible contamination of sampling equipment, to the improper loading of waste into shipping containers;

3. On June 19, 1999, upon arrival of the 14th shipment from Los Alamos National Laboratory at the WIPP site, it was discovered that a vent cap was missing from one of the TRUPACT-II containers;

4. On June 16, 1999, upon arrival at WIPP, contamination was found on the exterior of a TRUPACT-II shipped from the Rocky Flats Plant northwest of Denver, CO. Apparently the WIPP truck traveled 700 miles with this contamination on it - none of the in-route inspections (at Rocky Flats or at Raton, NM) detected it. The DOE has yet to reveal the chemical identity of the contamination or how it got there. First, the DOE said the contamination came from a raindrop; then the DOE claimed the contamination was polonium (Rocky Flats has had problems with polonium attaching to metal roofs); then the DOE claimed the contamination was a kind of naturally occurring radiation that was picked up along the route. We have yet to receive a satisfactory answer; and

5. On July 1, 1999 the NM Motor Transport Division issued a ticket to the WIPP truck driver at Raton, NM for a missing placard during a shipment from Rocky Flats. Federal Department of Transportation regulations require that for this shipment the radioactive materials placard be placed in four locations on the truck and trailer. The inspectors also found an "audible air leak" in the air hose connections for the air brakes between the tractor and the trailer.

This shipment from Rocky Flats contained over 1,000 curies of radiation in a powdered plutonium form, packed in the Pipe Overpacks. A Pipe Overpack is intended to contain 100% powdered plutonium loads and is packed within a 55- gallon drum. Two years ago only 1% of a drum's contents could be in powdered form. However, the DOE persuaded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to approve the Pipe Overpack as a shipping container for the powdered plutonium residues. Because the residues are so highly concentrated, they must have the shielding provided by the pipe to make sure that gamma and neutron radiation penetrating through the drums stays within legal limits. The NRC has only minimally tested these Pipe Overpacks because the DOE assumed that the pipes would never be broken open in an accident!

As an additional note, the NM Environment Department (NMED) has neglected to exercise any of its interim status oversight and regulatory powers at WIPP, including an inspection of the site. The NMED is expected to issue a permit for the operations of WIPP this fall. Yet the DOE has already shipped 15 loads of radioactive waste to WIPP. In the meantime, no operating permit is in place!

July 9, 1999

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