Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 8:50 pm | By Patrick Malone, The New Mexican
A new investigation by federal regulators into possible safety violations associated with a radiation leak detected in February at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad could have drastic consequences for the nations only below-ground nuclear waste storage site and the contractor that manages it.
The U.S. Department of Energys Office of Enforcement notified WIPP and the contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, about the investigation in a letter dated June 16. It will focus on the facts and circumstances associated with potential programmatic deficiencies in the nuclear safety, radiation protection, emergency management, quality assurance and worker safety and health programs in light of the Feb. 14 radiation leak and a truck fire at WIPP mere days earlier, according to the letter.
A separate investigation into the cause of the leak already has been commissioned by the National Nuclear Security Administrations Accident Investigation Board and is underway.
If the latest probe uncovers that Nuclear Waste Partnership failed to protect the public and workers at WIPP, the immediate consequence could be fines and penalties, but even the lucrative contract the company holds could ultimately be jeopardized by the regulators findings, according to the head of a watchdog group that monitors WIPP.
It could have implications for the entire contract, said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center. This investigation is not going to make that determination, but it can play into some of that determination. The penalty can be from zero up to some dollar penalties up to ultimately losing the contract.
Since 2012, Nuclear Waste Partnership has been operating WIPP on a base contract of $109 million annually. Bonuses and incentives have elevated the contractors compensation by DOE closer to $130 million per year.
Hancock said the developments in February could pose a barrier to the company collecting bonus and incentive money.
There should be major problems with them getting their money because they havent complied with even the minimal requirements of their contract, he said.
A spokeswoman for Nuclear Waste Partnership declined to comment Tuesday, instead deferring to DOE.
As with the previous investigation, WIPPs federal and contractor workforce will continue the highest level of cooperation and openness to help the Office of Enforcement collect all of the information necessary to complete its investigation, WIPP spokesman Ben Williams said in a written statement.
WIPP has ceased receiving waste since the leak was detected. When it will resume accepting shipments of the hazardous remnants of decades of nuclear weapons development from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other sites remains uncertain. Estimates range from one to three years, but until the extent of the contamination from the February radiation leak can be determined, a true target date for WIPP to restart activities is anybodys guess, New Mexico Environment Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn recently told a legislative panel.
Assessing the magnitude of contamination within WIPP has been difficult because hazardous conditions created by the leak have made human entry to the facility tenuous.
The investigation into the cause of the leak is ongoing. It has focused on a waste stream sent to WIPP from Los Alamos. Federal investigators have determined that the suspect waste stream was highly acidic and contained an organic kitty litter as an absorbent, as opposed to the standard clay-based variety.
Photographic evidence suggests a drum of waste from that stream burst following a chemical reaction. It is at the center of the investigation. Five more containers from the same waste stream are housed at the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews, Texas, near the New Mexico border.
Email messages exchanged last year between a LANL official and employees of the contractor that packaged the suspect waste there, EnergySolutions, raised questions about whether the lab sufficiently considered whether changes in kitty litter and acid neutralizers mixed with nuclear waste were likely to create a volatile mix.
To date, LANL has not been notified of any pending regulatory investigation by DOE, and messages Tuesday for heads of the Office of Enforcement to determine whether a parallel investigation will take place at the lab were not returned.
As the contractor at WIPP, Nuclear Waste Partnership shares in the responsibility to assure that the waste arriving from LANL and other labs does not pose an extraordinary risk, according to Hancock.
They are responsible by contract for all the operations at WIPP, and theyre responsible for the waste characterization at sites, including Los Alamos, he said. So clearly, theyre responsible for what happened with the fire and the radiation release in so far as they relate to operations at WIPP.
No WIPP workers were underground when the radiation escaped, but 22 employees tested positive for internal contamination, though none were exposed to levels that the DOE deem harmful. Hancock said he is hopeful that the regulatory investigation will scrutinize how employees exposure to radiation from the leak was handled as well as the circumstances that led to their exposure.
State regulatory action against WIPP or LANL is in a holding pattern until clearer details of the leaks cause are identified, but Flynn told state lawmakers last month that enforcement action against the DOEs permits for the two sites is likely.
Unlike state regulatory penalties, which are capped at $10,000 per day for environmental violations, federal regulatory punishments are open-ended. Hancock said that leaves open the possibility of consequences ranging from leniency to high fines. Regardless of any penalties that could be imposed, he welcomed the new investigation by regulators and the public report that it will generate, even though its completion could be far into the future.
Its hard to tell how big of a deal it is, Hancock said. It could be a very big deal, because in my view the investigation should be asking some really hard questions.
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone . Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.
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