Lesson Learned from the February 2014 Fire and Radiation Release Events at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, USA
The recently reopened Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is expected to resume accepting new shipments of nuclear waste from across the DOE (Department of Energy) complex by April, 2017. There was no road map for cleaning up the nation’s only deep geologic repository for defense nuclear waste when it was contaminated three years ago after two accidents in February 2014 shutdown the facility and contaminated 22 workers with very low level of radiation as some radioactive material escaped above ground. The dominant radionuclides released were americium and plutonium, in a ratio that matches the content of the breached drum. According to the source term estimation, the actual amount of radioactivity released from the WIPP site was less than 1.5 millicurie. From the modeling, monitoring, and air filter analyses, DOE calculated public doses from this radiation release event to be less than 0.01 mSv (<1 mrem/year), which is well below the 0.1mSv/year (10mrem/year ) regulatory limit.
The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability, compounded by a slow erosion of safety culture and an atmosphere of complacency, resulted in the release of radioactive material from the WIPP underground. The clean-up is expected to cost DOE almost a billion, and with radiological contamination and reduced air flow underground, the regular work of running WIPP is going to be slow and costly. Nevertheless, the lesson learned as a result of these two accidents at the WIPP is worth documenting as it brought renewed focus on risk, oversight, and emergency planning surrounding the nuclear facility. At some point in the future, the changes made in response to these two events will be seen as a valuable lesson learned on behalf of future repository program.