Safety Board Has Continuing Concerns about Safety at WIPP

In a May 29, 2020 Report, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board identifies four significant safety items that are unresolved at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  The items are related to the various accident scenarios the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractor, the Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, chose to analyze and mitigate.  In some cases, the contractor asked that accident scenarios be removed from consideration, and DOE agreed.  Nevertheless, the ever-watchful independent Board continues to request improved safety measures.

WIPP, located 2,150 feet below ground in salt formations, is a dump for plutonium-contaminated waste materials from manufacturing nuclear weapons. The waste contains long-lived radionuclides and other hazardous materials, so that every five years, DOE must certify to the Environmental Protection Agency that WIPP will not leak for 10,000 years.

The Board is concerned about repeat explosive events, such as the one that occurred on February 14, 2014 when one or more waste containers exploded underground.  The waste originated at Los Alamos National Laboratory and was not properly characterized.   The Board is concerned that WIPP still does not believe that the characterization process can fail, even though it has.  The Board urges WIPP to reinstate the continuous air monitoring system that detects and responds to possible failures in the waste characterization process.

Another accident scenario involves a fire at the bottom of the shaft where a hoist carries waste from the surface to the underground.  Currently, there is no restriction on transporting a 300-gallon fuel tank on the waste hoist.  DOE could simply resolve the issue by prohibiting the transport of the fuel tank on the waste hoist.  A smaller salt hoist can transport the fuel tank.

A related scenario is “overtraveling” of the waste hoist at the top of the shaft, creating damage to the ropes, which could result in its dropping to the bottom of the shaft.  DOE says that installation of a controller and brake system would prevent the upward movement.  

Roof falls in the underground have been of concern since the 1980s when WIPP was constructed.  Once an area is opened up for waste disposal, slabs of salt can fall from the ceiling.  DOE maintains the roofs with roof bolts that secure wire sheeting across the room ceilings.  In rooms open for waste disposal, there is a possibility of a roof fall across the entire length of the room. The Board recommends safety controls, such as the ventilation system, to mitigate this danger.

Finally, the Board again recommends that DOE strengthen federal oversight of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor at WIPP.

1. Thursday, June 18th – New Mexico Legislature Special Session Begins. For more information, check out Retake Our Democracy’s recent * important * Zoominar “NM State Budget Crisis, a Moral Crossroas,” with advocates from Voices for Children and Rep. Javier Martinez, Chair of the House Tax & Revenue Committee.  The best quote from the Zoominar:  “We don’t have a budget problem, we have a revenue”


2. Saturday, June 20th – the digital and social media gathering of the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington.  To learn more, go to   


3. Tuesday, June 23rd from 5 to 7 pm – FINAL Midtown Santa Fe “Meet the Developer Series” virtual discussion. The topic is Housing and Affordability Residents may attend the meetings virtually at  The chat function will be enabled for your questions and comments.  If you would like to submit a question(s) before the meeting, email  For more information, visit


4. Wednesday, July 22nd – comments due to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the proposed Holtec Consolidated Interim Storage Facility for high-level radioactive waste. For more information, check out Kendra Chamberlain’s article ‘Forever deadly:’  State officials, communities scramble to fight a proposal to house high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico at   For sample public comments, visit


5. Friday, July 31st comments due to EPA about two LANL discharge permits.


EPA extended the public comment periods for 60 more days for the Individual Stormwater Permit and Industrial Wastewater (outfalls) Permit.  A virtual public meeting on the Individual Stormwater Permit will be held in July.   Sample public comments will be available before the deadline.


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