Report: Salt mine fire at NM nuclear waste facility was ‘preventable’

DOE investigation blasts emergency preparedness for fire at military facility

A tunnel inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant more than 2,000 feet below the surface near Carlsbad, N.M.
Eric Draper/AP

A February fire at a military nuclear-waste storage facility in New Mexico that injured 13 workers was preventable, according to a report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The fire, which forced the emergency evacuation of 86 workers, was followed nine days later by a radiation leak from the same underground repository. An investigation into the leak, which contaminated 17 workers, is expected to be released by the end of the month, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The two incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., led to the closure of the repository, which is stationed half a mile underground.

The DOE report found that the fire started on a salt truck because of a buildup of combustible fluids that should have been cleaned. The fire then burned the truck's tires, creating large amounts of smoke that posed a health hazard to workers.

The root cause of the fire, according to the report, was the failure of the facility’s management and operations contractor to adequately recognize and mitigate hazards having to do with underground fires. The report also criticized the decision to deactivate the truck's automatic fire-suppression system.

In addition, the report identified several contributing factors, including the operator's subpar training and qualifications. His response to the vehicle fire was characterized as "inadequate."

The operator, who had unloaded salt from the truck when he noticed the flames, attempted to extinguish the fire with a portable fire extinguisher stored on the truck. He then tried to activate the truck’s fire-suppression system. Both efforts were unsuccessful.

The DOE report also criticized WIPP’s emergency preparedness and response program as ineffective.

An evacuation was recommended after the operator used a mine phone to notify maintenance crews of the fire. But many workers said the evacuation alarm and PA system announcement were not heard throughout the facility. Some workers said they heard about the evacuation personally through co-workers or supervisors.

The facility’s ventilation system also failed. When it was switched to filtration mode to reduce smoke levels, it instead transferred smoke to areas where workers expected to have “good” air. Some workers were unable to see through the smoke, and a delay in activating the evacuation strobe lights prolonged the evacuation, the report added.

The DOE underscored the existence of a “nuclear versus mine culture” — in which there are significant differences in the maintenance of waste-handling versus non-waste-handling equipment.

“This is not just a mine, not just an operating nuclear facility — this is both,” said Ted Wyka, a DOE official who led the investigation. “We were pretty lucky that day. 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.”

The DOE also blamed the facility’s management. It said that repeated deficiencies identified in the DOE’s and other external agencies’ assessments were allowed to remain unresolved for “extended periods of time without ensuring effective site response.”

The Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday that WIPP had tapped a new president and project manager to lead the facility.

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