Fire, then radiation leak at 15 year old facility – and Texas wants a high-level radioactive waste facility?

Less than two weeks ago, we reported on a fire at the New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in our blog about a Texas interim charge to “study the rules, laws, and regulations pertaining to the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas and determine the potential economic impact of permitting a facility in Texas. Make specific recommendations on the state and federal actions necessary to permit a high-level radioactive waste disposal or interim storage facility in Texas“. 

WIPP is an underground low-level radioactive waste disposal site that began operations in 1999 and is the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons.  On February 5th, WIPP entered emergency status, after a vehicle used to transport salt in the north area of the underground (not an area where radioactive waste was stored) caught fire. Several employees were taken to the hospital with smoke inhalation and WIPP’s underground operations have been suspended since the incident.

This weekend, airborne radiation was detected around 11:30 p.m. on Friday near Panel 7, Room 7, in the south salt mine., according to officials with the Department of Energy. No injuries were reported and no personnel were underground when the facility’s continuous air monitors, or CAMs, detected radiation downstream of where nuclear waste is disposed.  The Department of Energy has told the public that:

  • this incident is the first time in WIPP’s 15-year history that the facility has had a CAM alarm detect this level of radiation underground,
  • they have not detected any above normal radiation levels above ground, and
  • that the radiation leak is not related to last week’s fire.

I hardly feel reassured that there have been two, not insignificant (related or not) incidents at a 15-year-old facility that was designed to contain the waste for 10,000 years.  And I am truly concerned that Texas thinks it can manage a high-level radioactive waste site in West Texas that will need to be designed to contain waste for 100’s of thousands of years.