DOE’s Picture of Dorian Gray

Washington, D.C., May 5, 2014 – The Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Program in New Mexico looks increasingly like a governmental version of Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” For years, on the surface, the project to store transuranic waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons edifice in underground salt beds in New Mexico program looked great. Policymakers were so impressed with WIPP they were advocating it as a model for how to repair the catastrophically-failed civilian nuclear waste effort.

But below the surface – and literally in the case of WIPP – there was another story, as a recent internal DOE report details: confusion, mismanagement, obsolete technology. And that rot underground surfaced, again literally, in February where something happened underground (and it still isn’t clear what happened) that led to elevated radiation on the surface. It was weeks before underground radiation levels tailed off enough so that technicians could begin to investigate.

Last week, DOE released its 302-page  Accident Investigation Report. It contains some jaw-droppers. It turns out that the computer system the operators have does not contain maps of the 16 miles of underground corridors and cave where the waste is handled and stored. So “facility operators are forced to rely on memory regarding the actual configuration of the facility. Therefore, the operator may not be able to react and appropriately respond to all abnormal conditions or events.”

Also, WIPP has no underground video cameras, so control room workers on the surface have no way to seeing what is going on underground. It isn’t even clear at this time that the assumption that the accident was the result of a roof fall is valid. DOE’s inspectors did a spot check that found that of 40 phones underground, 12 were inoperable.

The root cause, said the DOE investigation, was mismanagement by the WIPP contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, and DOE’s Carlsbad, N.M., office. Together, they failed to “fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety ,culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed/ineffective recognition and response to the release.”

The contractor, NWP, is a consortium of URS, Babcock & Wilcox, and Areva. NWP took over the project from Washington TRU Solutions (WTS), a URS subsidiary, which operated the project from 2000 until NWP took over. The DOE investigation said, “Upon transition from WTS to NWP, the management of the WIPP facility did not see a substantial change in management personnel.”

The report also flagged mismanagement at DOE’s headquarters, which “failed to ensure that [Carlsbad] was held accountable for correcting repeated identified issues involving radiological protection, nuclear safety, integrated safety management (ISM), maintenance, emergency management, work planning, and control and oversight.”