U.S. Department of Energy officials say they have conducted numerous safety assessments of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad since a nuclear waste drum burst there Feb. 14. But none of those assessments has been made public, even as the plant’s operators send growing numbers of workers back into the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

Officials with the Energy Department and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private consortium that operates the repository, say they are taking abundant precautions to ensure their workers and the public are safe.

But emails and documents obtained by The New Mexican describing safety assessments in May, June and July raise questions about the stability of dozens of other nuclear waste drums that were in the same chamber as the drum that ruptured. More recent WIPP safety assessments have not been released, even to the union representing more than 300 WIPP workers.

“We don’t know how safe WIPP is, even in the short run of the current underground activities,” Don Hancock, an analyst with the Southwest Research and Information Center, which closely monitors WIPP, said after reviewing the documents.

The Feb. 14 accident happened when a chemical reaction inside the drum caused it to rupture. Radiation leaked into the air, and temperatures in the underground chamber peaked at nearly 1,600 degrees. More than 20 workers were exposed to what the Energy Department has described as low levels of radiation. Department officials say it could cost $550 million and take up to five years to fully reopen the facility.

While federal officials have yet to isolate what sparked the reaction, The New Mexican reported this month that workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the drum originated, improperly used acid neutralizers and organic kitty litter that created a volatile combination when mixed with highly acidic nitrate salts in the waste. One internal lab report described the mix as similar to plastic explosives.

Lab officials say that exact combination of ingredients was isolated to one drum. And after “exhaustive scientific testing,” officials say they have dismissed the hypothesis that the explosive nature of the ingredients caused the reaction.

But even the organic kitty litter — which the lab began using regularly in 2012 to absorb excess liquid in potentially hundreds of drums now stored at WIPP — presents a problem because it can act as fuel in the event of another reaction. Investigators believe the organic material may be one reason temperatures in the chamber rose so high.

The lab has not explained why it began using organic kitty litter instead of the more inert clay-based variety, but there is some speculation among lab and WIPP officials that it may have been caused by a typographical error inserted into a waste-handling manual back in 2012.

Internal emails between WIPP contractors detail concerns about the stability of drums potentially containing the organic material that became exposed to the extreme temperatures. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“If such an event were to occur again with workers present, the effected [sic] waste drum and adjacent drums could reach hundreds of degrees C [Celsius],” John Menna, a WIPP contractor involved in the post-burst safety analysis, wrote in an email dated June 20 to the plant’s operators. “There are some of the infracted LANL drums located close to the exhaust drift bulkhead, and therefore would be in close proximity to workers.”

Attached to Menna’s email was a June 17 draft of a LANL report that suggested the high temperatures may have made other nuclear waste drums in the chamber more unstable than ever.

“Because of the mixture of organics (fuel) and nitrate salts (oxidizer) in these drums, they continue to pose a hazard,” said the report by Christopher J. Chancellor of LANL’s Carlsbad operations section, referring to 55 additional drums of similar waste stored near the one that ruptured.

The high temperatures in the room “may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction,” the report states. “This dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction.”

Nuclear Waste Partnership, the consortium of URS Energy & Construction Inc., Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group Inc. and French-government-owned Areva, which the federal government pays more than $150 million a year to operate WIPP, says it is taking steps to protect workers.

“Potential hazards for the remaining containers in Room 7, Panel 7 [where the leak originated] have been evaluated, including possible affects [sic] from the room heating observed during the February event,” according to a written statement from Nuclear Waste Partnership in response to questions directed at the Department of Energy. “Protective measures have been put in place for all workers required to enter Panel 7.”

As of late September, decision-makers at WIPP were sending workers into the underground bunker four times a week with plans to eventually resume daily entries, according to the Energy Department recovery plan released in September. The Energy Department estimated in the plan that 90 percent of the nuclear waste repository is free of radiation. But more recent radiological surveys place that figure at closer to 60 percent, an Energy Department spokesman said last week.

Personnel at WIPP have been conducting drills to prepare for another emergency like the February event, and workers who descend into the cavern have been equipped with full-body suits for protection.

The partnership and the Department of Energy say they have conducted frequent safety analyses since the assessments described in the emails obtained by the newspaper. But despite frequent community meetings in Carlsbad that are broadcast on the Internet and a raft of documents posted online since the February incident, the Energy Department and its contractor at WIPP have not publicly shared the safety evaluations, known as Evaluation of the Safety of the Situation, or ESS, according to Hancock.

“We need more than them just saying, ‘Oh, it’s all OK,’ ” Hancock said. “They should put out written, technical information to support their position. We do know that this is an active concern they had in June. Four and a half months later, you should have lots of additional paper. Put it out. It’s obvious at this point that we can’t trust them.”

Requests from The New Mexican for up-to-date WIPP safety assessments are pending approval for release, an Energy Department spokesman said.

Even the union representing more than 300 WIPP workers has yet to see the safety reports, according to the union’s local president.

“They make references all the time to those [reports], but as far as me being able to see those reports, I haven’t,” said Rick Fuentes, president of the United Steel Workers District 12, Local 9477.

Fuentes said he and his workers became much more alarmed about their safety after reading about the volatile mix of ingredients in the ruptured drum in a Nov. 16 report in The New Mexican.

“That’s what’s scary,” he said. “We were sending our own people down there, and there could have been an explosion. It was putting us in harm’s way.”

On May 30, workers donned durable plastic suits and entered the chamber that had been blanketed by temperatures near 450 degrees Fahrenheit during the February reaction. Weeks after that entry, LANL analysis of conditions in the chamber revealed that the threat of a sudden flare-up reaching hundreds of degrees Celsius existed in the room. Fuentes said the suits that workers were wearing would not have protected them against such an event.

“When you get temperatures that high, it would have just melted them,” he said.

The relationship between Energy Department leaders at WIPP and the union has been strong in recent years, but Fuentes said the union frequently butts heads with Nuclear Waste Partnership over safety issues.

Beyond the threat of a dramatic event in the underground, Hancock said environmental hazards from the radiation leak and others inherent with WIPP’s mission pose a danger to workers because they aren’t adequately monitored.

He questions the reliability of radiation measurements outside the mine, which have been characterized by the Energy Department as below levels that would negatively affect humans. Readings from New Mexico State University’s Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center tend to reflect higher levels of radiation than those collected by the Energy Department.

The New Mexico Environment Department, which Hancock said collected the most reliable radiation data for a decade preceding the leak, was not monitoring the WIPP exterior at the time of the February release.

“That’s a colossal failure,” Hancock said.

Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the Environment Department, which holds permitting authority over WIPP, said the radiation readings at WIPP were not being monitored in February because of a staffing vacancy. However, Energy Department and Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center radiation measurements at the time of the leak are on file with the Environment Department.

After the Feb. 14 leak, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center reported finding concentrations of americium and plutonium unprecedented in WIPP emissions since the repository opened in 1999. The readings came from a monitoring station more than a half-mile from WIPP. But the research center’s report categorized its findings as “very low compared to the [Environmental Protection Agency] actionable limit.”

“Any amount of radiation is of concern,” Hancock said.

He also is concerned that workers inside the mine could be exposed to potentially cancer-causing volatile organic compounds that aren’t being monitored by WIPP. Environment Department spokeswoman Jill Turner confirmed that monitoring of volatile organic compounds, a condition of WIPP’s permit from the state, has not been taking place since Feb. 14 because of the limited access to contaminated underground areas.

“WIPP is expected to comply with the [volatile organic compound] monitoring requirements of the permit once it is safe for their workers to resume normal operations,” Turner said.

But Hancock pointed out that workers already are entering the unmonitored areas of the underground and have been for months, exposing themselves to unknown levels of volatile organic compounds, such as carbon tetrachloride, which the EPA has designated a “probable human carcinogen” that negatively affects the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

“They have no intention of starting to do the volatile organic compound monitoring in the underground at least until January of 2016,” Hancock said. “They fully intend to keep sending workers into the underground with no intention of following this requirement. It’s in violation of the permit, and the Environment Department should say so.”

Hancock wants WIPP leaders to start medically monitoring workers on a regular basis to determine if they’re being exposed to conditions that are dangerous to their health. And while he says he’s frustrated with the Environment Department’s decisions in the recent past, Hancock said he’s more concerned about the steps it will take next, including potential fines and imposing strict monitoring conditions on the WIPP permit before allowing it to reopen.

The union at WIPP also favors medically testing workers for contamination more frequently than the annual tests currently conducted. But the union so far hasn’t gotten a commitment from Nuclear Waste Partnership to conduct that testing, Fuentes said.

“I’d hope at some point we’d do some testing that revolves around the specific waste that we now know is in those drums,” he said, “because some of my members still don’t feel comfortable going into the underground.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

(5) comments

Peter Prandoni

How about if Bechtel et al. (LANS) pays for the clean-up, since they made the mess? Why should the taxpayers have to pay for it? Let me guess--there's a law that protects them from any liability.

Peter Prandoni

Yet more piles of radioactive waste will be generated at LANL if Senator Udall's support for "stockpile stewardship" leads to funding billions of dollars more for the incompetent contractors on the hill to restart plutonium pit production. This when there are tons of radioactive waste waiting for transport to WIPP, and it will take years to reopen.

What is a progressive city like Santa Fe doing as a member of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities in view of these glaring facts about the dangers LANL poses for the health of our environment, citizens, the WIPP workers and Carlsbad residents?

Steven Salemi

Life is often painfully predictable. Something like WIPP is proposed, the critics say don't build it, it's dangerous; the proponents say it's safe, nothing will ever happen; it gets built despite the protests...and then something happens.

Greg Mello

More kudos to the New Mexican for this little bit of light shed in, literally, a dark cave and on what LANL sent there.

It is inexcusable that DOE does not have more information as to the safety of the situation, more than 9 months after the incident. To get that, data, analysis, and logic are required.

Instead what we have seen is official opacity, extreme bureaucratic fear of powerful contractors and their politician friends -- a root cause of the incident in the first place -- and organized, intentional ignorance. One hears more than a faint echo of the catchphrase from Sergeant Schultz in "Hogan's Heroes," -- "I know nothing!"

The overpowering smell in the room is the mess LANL made, and the lack of accountability for the cowboy buttheads on the hill who did not know the basic chemistry of, and did not want to be responsible for, their own waste. They are still spreading manure all over the situation. Nobody in government wants to address that -- or, changing the metaphor, to bell that particular cat.

The problem with obtaining samples from the drum in question, which would go a long way to answering safety questions, isn't the safety of the situation, which is not worse than many other jobs. DOE and its 17 overpaid labs could easily take those samples safely. But nobody in charge actually wants the answers they say they need.

Steve Salazar

You should don your anti c's and a respirator, and get those samples

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