Award-winning project finds seafood sold in Canada with high radiation levels — Many samples well over contamination limit — “Incredible discovery; Something unexpected may be lurking in Canadian waters” — Believes dangerous Fukushima pollution carried across ocean — “I hope people will open their eyes”
Reuters: “Unsafe levels of radiation” were released during WIPP accident; More workers contaminated with plutonium — AP: Leak of radioactive material could’ve been “orders of magnitude larger”; Feds now testing air & soil 50 miles from site (AUDIO)
TV: US Senators want federal agents near WIPP to check if safe; “A lot more people could have been hurt a lot worse” — Public “skeptical whole truth about environmental risks shared” — Report: “It will shut WIPP down for a year or more, and now everyone is talking about maybe WIPP is no good” (VIDEO)
Mexicans concerned, anxious about WIPP radiation release — City of 2.5 million nearly 200 miles away “within transnational evacuation zone in event of a nuclear disaster” — Local officials meeting with U.S. gov’t — Whistleblower: If plutonium released “surrounding population should take precautions”
TV: 11 workers at U.S. nuclear site transported to medical facilities — Suffering nose bleeds, chest pains, coughing up blood — Multiple locations evacuated — Persistent symptoms “extremely unusual” — Workers: “The place is falling apart… serious problems out there” (VIDEO)
WIPP permits get a closer look after 2 incidents
Seven weeks on and still no one knows what happened at New Mexico’s nuclear waste repository that caused radiation to escape the deep underground.
But two back-to-back incidents in February – a truck fire and the radiation leak – have left many aspects of the permits that govern how the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant operates open to question. The ongoing investigation into the source of the radiation release and the extent of contamination underground could topple long-held assumptions, experts say.
One of those relates to how containers destined for WIPP are tested.
When WIPP opened in 1999, nearly every single container headed for the repository was checked for “headspace gas,” the flammable or corrosive chemicals that can build up in the space between the drum contents and lid and threaten a rupture or explosion.
State regulators relaxed those rules over time, most notably in 2006 and again in 2013, citing redundancies in the system – although change did not always come without a fight.
“If there was an exploding drum, it’s a very relevant discussion,” said Don Hancock, head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center. “Headspace gas sampling was one of the ways to try to detect whether that was a problem or not.”
In the late 1990s, as WIPP geared up for opening day, the plant evaluated a number of potential accidents in a report. Most of the scenarios centered on human error underground. But with no one present underground during the Valentine’s Day leak shortly before midnight, only two other risks outlined in WIPP’s lengthy Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement remain: a roof collapse or an exploding drum. Both risks are considered possible causes of the recent leak.
Citing redundancies and cost, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., spearheaded in 2003 an effort at the congressional level to reduce container testing. The New Mexico Environment Department initially resisted. But in 2006, the agency agreed to a permit modification that allowed waste generator sites to test a representative sample of containers from each waste stream headed for WIPP. A “waste stream” refers to waste that shares similar characteristics.
In 2013, the Environment Department approved a permit modification that eliminated all headspace gas testing, so long as the documentation accompanying the waste was in order. That documentation is known as “acceptable knowledge” and typically includes extensive paperwork tracking the waste stream’s history and chemical makeup, even interviews with people who handled the materials in the past.
“Basically they were testing for prohibited items, prohibitive chemicals, that there was nothing ignitable or corrosive,” said Trais Kliphuis, WIPP program manager in the department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.
“What they realized is that the testing had never, ever shown anything that was prohibited. What this sampling was showing was that it always matched. Acceptable knowledge really was adequate and really showed what was in the containers.”
That process failed publicly at least once, in 2007, when a drum containing liquids not permitted at WIPP was inadvertently shipped there.
To backstop against such issues, a WIPP team, along with a state Environment Department expert, audit each generator site’s “acceptable knowledge” processes on an annual basis.
WIPP recently requested lessening the frequency of those audits but Kliphuis said the Environment Department pushed back and WIPP relented. Regardless, all permit processes related to WIPP are now on hold, due to the incidents, she said.
Hancock calls the headspace gas testing issue a “sore point.”
In the two incidents, “the fundamental failure is with Nuclear Waste Partnership,” the WIPP contractor, he said. “They should be accountable. But secondarily, we should look at how did the regulators do? As we get more information, we may want to say to EPA or NMED, ‘You need to make some changes.’ ”
Nuclear Waste Partnership spokesman Donavan Mager notes that even though headspace gas sampling is no longer required, before containers can be shipped they are tested to ensure they don’t vent flammable gases during transport to WIPP.