WOOPS WIPP Did it Again

Nuclear Waste Spill Revives Controversy

To hear web pundits tell it, the Valentine’s Day radiation leak at the WIPP site southeast of Carlsbad might have been bad enough to require a mass evacuation of the surrounding binational region. 

But officials say the highest radiation dose recorded after the incident by air monitors on the surface of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site amounted to about a quarter of the exposure in a single chest x-ray. Supporters seem to view the incident as a regrettable bump on a road expected to stretch on for millennia. Reopening WIPP is not a matter of if, they say, but when and how.

Russell Hardy isn’t worried. He initially visited WIPP about 36 hours after a Feb. 14 radiation release, the first such reported mistake in the 15 years since the facility began burying the toxic material 2,100 feet underground in a vast salt bed. Since that trip, Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, a division of New Mexico State University, has returned to WIPP to collect air samples three or four times per week, staying at least three hours each time. 

The research center routinely evaluates radiation exposure in WIPP workers using equipment that conducts whole body scans to evaluate the presence of radionuclides in the lungs and body. The testing is also offered free to any adults living within 100 miles of the low-level radioactive waste tomb. 

By mid-March, about 50 civilians had made appointments for whole body scans, slightly more than the 30 to 40 the center tests in a typical year. Eventually, even Hardy decided to undergo the 30-minute body scan himself. Not, he says, because he was concerned about his own health. Hardy says he just wanted to share his medical information, which is typically confidential, to show the surface threat was minimal to a frequent WIPP visitor: “I came up clean for americium and plutonium.”

The US Department of Energy, which oversees the facility, and Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, the private contractor that operates it, have repeatedly assured that the radioactive particles belched from exhaust fans shortly after 11:30 pm on Feb. 14 do not seriously threaten people or the environment. Representatives from the DOE say they are still investigating the precise cause of the leak and therefore can’t disclose it, and a team is expected to make its first underground inspection of the accident site by the end of the month.

“WIPP is absolutely essential to the way the department, and frankly this country, sees that we will deal with 50 years of waste that were produced in the process of dealing with the challenge of the Cold War,” David Klaus, DOE’s deputy undersecretary for management and performance, told a Carlsbad public forum on March 6. 

But judging from interviews around Carlsbad and high-anxiety posts on the web, the leak undermined the public trust so prized by project managers. For some, the recent mishaps also call into question the high expectations of a project that vowed to “start clean, stay clean.”


While Carlsbad residents fretted about radiation dispersal and whether WIPP’s 800 employees, accounting for a roughly $200 million annual payroll, would keep their jobs during the temporary suspension (they will), a key concern for Santa Fe area residents has been the interruption of the 3706 TRU Waste Campaign. The plan negotiated between the state and DOE calls for relocating 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste stored above ground on a mesa at Los Alamos National Laboratory to WIPP. The 2011 Las Conchas fire, which scorched over 156,000 acres and forced a temporary evacuation of Los Alamos, exposed the vulnerability of the surface-stored waste.

State Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn has said he wants the last 546 cubic meters of waste awaiting removal to be shipped by the June 30 deadline, and the DOE says it will comply. Moving that much waste would typically require about 120 shipments over 12 weeks, says Don Hancock, Nuclear Waste Safety Program director for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

WIPP’s operator, the Nuclear Waste Partnership, now with a new top manager in place since the leak, plans to ship the Los Alamos laboratory waste to the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews County, Texas, for temporary storage. Eventually, the waste will be transferred to WIPP for permanent burial—once WIPP resumes operations.

When WIPP will reopen for business is unclear. 

Several longtime observers say they expect the facility will remain closed for about a year while underground surfaces are treated and new operational procedures are reviewed. 

“It’s going to take a year,” says James Conca, former director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center and now director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences at Columbia Basin College in Washington state. “People will study it to death.”

Hancock says the answer is “unknowable...until we have a lot more information. What happened? Why did it happen? Is it a systemic problem that is likely to happen again? How much decontamination will be required? This is going to take a while to get results.”

The energy department calls WIPP a cornerstone of the national effort to dispose of waste generated by nuclear bomb production and research. The waste, including contaminated clothing, tools and debris, is mainly stored in clustered 55-gallon drums, surrounded by a 10-inch foam layer and packed inside stainless steel containers.

In 15 years, WIPP has entombed nearly 91,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste, most of it from nuclear weapons facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory; Savannah River, South Carolina; Rocky Flats in Colorado; and Los Alamos. The facility has a storage capacity of 176,000 cubic meters of waste.

WIPP boosters in Carlsbad believe the facility’s mission could and should be expanded to handle higher-level radioactive waste, but that would require congressional action. Officials say that’s not even on the table for now.

Excavating more waste buried in unlined pits for shipment to WIPP would please many Los Alamos residents and members of the Carlsbad community.

“I don’t want to diminish in any way what happened at WIPP,” Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway says in a statement. “This has been absolutely the most serious incident in the 15-year history of the project…But this incident itself shows how important it is to get this waste isolated from the environment, and not vulnerably stashed in Los Alamos and overlooking the Rio Grande communities of Northern New Mexico.”

Scott Kovac, research director for Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico, doesn’t exactly embrace WIPP—he opposes the nuclear weapons production that necessitated the facility’s construction—but he would like to see WIPP responsibly fulfill the role of storing some waste from Los Alamos. “Right now, we’ve got all this radioactive waste,” Kovac says. “The only hole in the ground that was accepting waste is not accepting waste.” 


For a project dependent on public confidence in its ability to safely isolate radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years, recent dents to the facility’s performance record are a big deal.

In the most glaring recent example, the energy department issued a statement March 17 deflating internet claims that the radiation leak rendered a part of southern New Mexico, west Texas and northern Chihuahua uninhabitable for decades. “There is absolutely no basis for these rumors,” the department says. 

A blogger at pissinontheroses.blogspot.com urged residents to prepare to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The blogger claimed the radiation leak prompted Kirtland Air Force Base, six days after the Feb. 14 incident, to order 1,200 radiation suits. A Kirtland spokesman says the purchase had nothing to do with WIPP, and an executive with the El Paso-based equipment supplier, MRI Company, says the firm had been selling suits to Kirtland for three years.

The rumor reflects how powerfully radiation evokes public fears. “Because (the leak) has the word ‘radiation’ in it, by definition everyone is going to overreact,” Conca says.

But the energy department’s own history can be partly blamed for cracks in the public’s trust. 

The lack of faith in the DOE and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, goes back over the last four decades, when more than 400 secret experiments where the federal government exposed Americans to radiation came to light. (The experiments were the subject of a presidential advisory committee investigation in the mid-’90s.) Former Albuquerque Tribune reporter Eileen Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1993 series of stories detailing how 18 Americans were injected with plutonium from 1945 to 1947. No New Mexico residents living downwind from fallout were told of any possible dangers when the US detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity near Socorro in 1945.

With the Feb. 14 leak, Conca says that public confidence might have been strengthened had DOE rolled out information about the release in a more nuanced way. 

“I’m hoping they’re telling the truth,” says Dale Vickrey III, a former WIPP waste handler who rode bikes with his three children recently on a path along the Pecos River in Carlsbad. “Having young kids, it’s a concern.”

At a nearby RV park that logged more than a dozen reservation cancellations after the Valentine’s Day radiation leak, 32-year-old Brandy O’Connor says she remains skeptical that the whole truth about the environmental risks has been shared with the public. O’Connor, who moved to Carlsbad from Odessa, Texas, about one year ago with her husband, says she hasn’t discussed the leak with her children because “they’ll freak out.” 

“I’ve never had to worry about something like this before,” O’Connor says. “I just try not to think about it.”


 The troubles at WIPP, which sits 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad in the center of a 16-square-mile federal land withdrawal, began on Feb. 5. That’s when a 29-year-old salt-hauling truck caught fire. Six employees received treatment for smoke inhalation at a Carlsbad hospital, and waste storage operations stopped while investigators reviewed the accident and its response.

Nine days later, before the fire investigation had been completed and the charred vehicle removed, a release of airborne radiation—americium and plutonium—was detected underground. An air-filtration system designed to capture 99.97 percent of radioactive particles before release from the mine to the surface was quickly activated, and above-ground workers were ordered to shelter in place for about five hours until they were allowed to go home. 

 Within 24 hours of the release, the DOE declared, “There is no danger to human health or the environment,” and said no employees or facilities on the surface had been contaminated. Since then, the steady dribble of information has stoked confusion and skepticism among some in the public.

On Feb. 26, the DOE announced that 13 employees actually had tested positive for radiological contamination. Then on March 5, the energy department and Nuclear Waste Partnership said that while initial exposure levels were “extremely low,” follow-up biological samples taken from the employees returned negative and that workers were “unlikely to experience any health effects.” Four days after that, the number of employees who had tested positive for “just over background” levels of contamination increased to 17. While the energy department said on March 9 that urinalysis results indicated workers had not inhaled radioactive particles into their lungs, the next day it issued a correction to say it was possible a “small amount of contamination was inhaled.”

Complete test results on more than 100 people haven’t been disclosed yet. 

The generally reassuring news took a hit with the formal issue March 14 of the fire investigation report. The 187-page report concluded that a lax vehicle maintenance program contributed to the fire, believed caused when hydraulic fluid or diesel fuel was ignited by a hot piece of equipment, possibly the catalytic converter. The report also labeled the Nuclear Waste Partnership’s fire protection program “less than adequate.” 

The report also highlighted other glitches in the emergency response. An evacuation alarm sounded for only two seconds. Spoken orders to evacuate over an intercom were garbled and hard to understand. Some reflectors marking evacuation routes were obscured by stored material. A fire suppression system on board the vehicle that caught fire did not function properly.

The partnership’s president Farok Sharif, who had overseen WIPP operations since 2007, was replaced. In a joint statement, New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich called the accident investigation findings “deeply concerning” and said that “serious safety concerns . . . will need to be fully addressed.”

 “Fortunately, no one was hurt,” the senators wrote. “The community of Carlsbad and the nation expect WIPP to operate with the highest level of safety.” 

The DOE has said the Feb. 14 radiation release was unrelated to the Feb. 5 vehicle fire, which occurred more than 2,000 feet from a waste storage room, as big as a football field, that is the presumed radiation source. 

But Hancock says he considered the two incidents to be reflective of a “declining safety culture at WIPP.”


Several Carlsbad residents believe that, whether due to the late-night timing or the shutdown after the Feb. 5 truck fire, WIPP may have dodged a bullet with what the energy department refers to as the “radiological event” on Feb. 14. That’s because when radioactive particles were dispersed, perhaps from a roof collapse, no one was underground and exposure was minimized. 

“Timing played a perfect part in this,” Hardy says.

John Heaton, chair of the mayor’s Nuclear Opportunities Task Force, says he believes the critical fire-investigation report will prompt a rededication to ensuring public safety. 

“It’s discouraging for those of us who have preached (safety) for so long to read this report and find so many deficiencies in management and oversight and actual work by people charged to keep equipment up to speed. That’s very discouraging, but I don’t think I or the community are deterred by this,” Heaton says. “We know we can rebuild that culture of perfection, and we can get the mine back in operation. It’s desperately needed in this country.”

So far, public officials have expressed steadfast confidence in WIPP’s ability to continue its mission. 

“The risks of driving to work are far greater than the risks of working at WIPP,” says John Waters, director of the Carlsbad Department of Development. The radiation leak “is something of note and it does concern us…but in the end, we want to get back to doing the job we are supposed to do there --—that’s cleaning up the nation’s transuranic waste. It’s far, far safer underground.”

Eddy County officials and their counterparts in Lea County have long touted the area’s tolerance for hosting facilities that others shy away from.

While Nevada shunned plans to bury high-level nuclear waste from power reactors and weapons production under Yucca Mountain, Carlsbad officials have talked about possibly expanding WIPP’s mission to harbor such waste.

A study is being developed to demonstrate the suitability of the massive salt bed in which WIPP was dug to store higher-level radioactive waste. Eddy and Lea county officials have also promoted use of a 1,000-acre site on US 62/180 between Carlsbad and Hobbs for the above-ground storage of waste from nuclear weapons sites.

Louisiana Energy Services operates a uranium enrichment facility that serves commercial nuclear power plants at a site five miles east of Eunice.

“Nuclear waste is nasty stuff, and we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it,” Waters says. “You can be against the industry, but make sure that this stuff doesn’t get out into the environment.”

The Feb. 14 radiation leak was never supposed to happen. Before WIPP received its first shipment of transuranic waste on March 26, 1999, the DOE estimated the odds of an accidental radiation leak at one in 10,000 to one in 1 million in any year, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Van Romero, a physics professor and vice president of research at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, says the “bigger problem” underlined by the radiation leak is that the risk of such an event occurring “wasn’t as small as we thought it was.”

“Something happened that was outside of their safety analysis,” Romero says. “All of that was analyzed, all of the possible scenarios. So either there was a scenario they didn’t consider, or they didn’t do the proper analysis or . . . something way outside of the norm happened.” 

But Conca disagrees. If the cause of the radiation release was a drum ruptured by a partial ceiling collapse, the process is one that DOE has always anticipated. The settling of the dry-salt formation around waste containers has always been touted as an asset. 

But more than that, Conca also argues the release should not even be considered a catastrophic event—no one was seriously injured or killed, the surface environment was not seriously contaminated, the air filtration system worked as designed. 

Conca says the “non-radiological effect” of the political fallout “is much more important than the rads. The amount of radiation released is so low, it’s nothing, but it seems it will shut WIPP down for a year or more, and now everyone is talking about maybe WIPP is no good. What? Fifteen years of perfect performance and then you have one little burp.

“The question people have to ask is: How important really was this?”


A key question for WIPP in planning the underground contamination remediation effort, Romero says, will be to decide “how clean is clean enough.” Workers, after all, will face long-term exposure in the environment. “That will be a controversial decision,” Romero says. 

One WIPP employee’s wife, who requested anonymity, says her husband was “excited to go back. We have trust.” Her husband, she says, was one of the workers treated for smoke inhalation after the Feb. 5 fire.

“What’s worse? To have (waste) above ground or underground? What’s worse—Hanford (the troubled nuclear waste complex in Washington) or this?” she asked. “To me, WIPP is helping everyone, not just in the community.” The Carlsbad mother says employees know when they take a job at WIPP that there that is a certain amount of risk. But she believes the facility’s safety systems worked the way they were supposed to and protected the community: “I’m not one iota scared about my daughter breathing the air.” 

Meanwhile, state and federal agencies plan to deploy additional air monitors around WIPP and in Carlsbad. Soil samples are being evaluated. Safety procedures are being reviewed.

But restoring public confidence in WIPP may, in the end, prove more difficult than addressing underground contamination.

Carlsbad native Rachel Good, a 57-year-old gas-station clerk, sounded resigned to the risks posed by having a transuranic waste storage site in the neighborhood. Her husband, who works in a potash mine lab near WIPP, was not worried about the event, but Good says she is rattled by the fact that she and four family members have all had cancer. But what’s a person to do? 

"The only thing you can do is leave," Good says. "I guess if I was really concerned, I'd do more studying (about radiation's risks). Maybe I don't want to know, like the ostrich that puts its head in the sand." 

Rene Romo is a freelance journalist based in Las Cruces.
He covered southern New Mexico for the Albuquerque Journal for more than a decade.
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