Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
In this March 7, 2014 photo released the U.S. Department of Energy, specially-trained workers make unmanned tests inside a nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad, N.M. They are finalizing plans to enter the nation's only underground nuclear waste dump after two separate incidents forced its closure weeks ago, including a leak that exposed more than a dozen workers to low levels of radiation. Officials with the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant say initial testing shows there's no contamination at an air intake shaft that leads into the mine or at the bottom of the mine's salt shaft. (AP Photo/Department of Energy)
Fire at New Mexico nuke dump was preventable, report says
First Published Mar 14 2014 08:01 am • Last Updated Mar 14 2014 08:15 am

Albuquerque, N.M. • The truck that caught fire a half mile underground at a southeastern New Mexico nuclear waste dump was 29 years old, improperly maintained and operating without an automatic fire-suppression system, according to a report to be released Friday.

The report also will detail deficiencies in emergency training and responses at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

"It was preventable," Ted Wyka, a Department of Energy official who led the investigation, told a community meeting on Thursday evening as he previewed the findings of the probe into the first of two back-to-back incidents at the federal government’s only permanent repository for waste from the nation’s nuclear bomb-building facilities.

An investigation of a radiation release nine days later that contaminated 17 workers is expected in a few weeks.

The report was previewed just hours after the contractor that runs the site confirmed it had demoted WIPP President Farok Sharif.

Wyka said the investigation of the truck fire did not reveal exactly what sparked the blaze, but he said the old truck that was hauling salt had a buildup of oil and other combustible materials as well as active leaks.

The fire probably started about 30 minutes before the driver saw the orange glow from the engine compartment and jumped out to try to extinguish it, he said. But the automatic fire-suppression system that might have detected the heat earlier was not active, Wyka said, and the fire extinguisher the driver sprayed on the truck apparently didn’t work.

While Wyka praised the 86 workers who were underground when the fire started around 11 a.m. on Feb. 5 for their response, he said a number of systems failed. For example, he said emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes, the command-center response was lacking and the investigation showed emergency training drills were inadequate.

Six workers were treated for smoke inhalation after the fire.

"We were pretty lucky that day," he said. "... Despite all the safety systems that sort of let them down, the workforce down in the mine that day was very calm, collected and in many ways heroic."


story continues below
story continues below

Wyka said the workers "did everything they could" to notify colleagues to get out, even before the evacuation alarm sounded. "Some stayed behind to make sure everyone got in the elevator to get out."

The biggest lesson, he said, is about the mindset at the site.

"This is not just a mine, not just an operating nuclear facility — this is both," Wyka said, noting that trucks used in the part of the mine where waste is hauled are kept much cleaner than the old trucks used to haul salt in the tunnels. They also have active fire-suppression systems.

Joe Franco, who runs the Department of Energy’s site office at WIPP, choked up as he took the stand at the meeting, telling the community that at first he took the findings personally.

"It’s one of those things, being part of the family, one of those things that’s a little tough," he said. "But I think what’s important (is) we definitely got away with not ... having anyone seriously hurt. So we need to learn from that. It is what I wanted to hear, and I wanted the truth. We don’t need any sugar-coating."

WIPP is the nation’s only deep underground nuclear waste repository and a cornerstone of the Energy Department’s $5 billion-a-year program for cleaning up waste scattered at federal labs across the country from decades of making nuclear bombs.

Waste shipments to the dump were halted after the truck fire. Nine days later, a radiation release shuttered all operations.

In a statement Thursday, URS Corp. said Sharif has been replaced by Bob McQuinn as president and project manager of the Nuclear Waste Partnership.

McQuinn, the company said, has 35 years of experience in Department of Energy nuclear and high-hazard operations, including six years in charge of nuclear operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sharif has been moved to a new job overseeing the program to move nuclear waste to other locations while WIPP is shuttered. He also will work with other Department of Energy sites to develop plans for the temporary storage of their waste, the company said.

In an internal memo, James Taylor, general manager of global operations for URS, said he also expects to appoint a recovery manager in the next few days.

"As I mentioned to the (Nuclear Waste Partnership) workforce last week, we are committed to returning WIPP to safe, compliant operations," Taylor said. "I am confident these structural realignments will strengthen our recovery efforts."



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.