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Our View: WIPP accident shines light on operations

Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2014 7:00 pm

The New Mexican

The repercussions of an accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant last February continue to reverberate.

First the accident, a ruptured drum containing wastes packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, resulting in a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination on Feb. 14, 2014. WIPP remains on indefinite shutdown as the cause of the accident is investigated. The U.S. Department of Energy is estimating that full resumption of activities at WIPP — the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository, located in Carlsbad — could be as much as five years away. Already, an Energy Department report is faulting LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and mixing volatile ingredients in the WIPP shipments.

Now, the state of New Mexico is levying $54 million in penalties against the federal agency and its private contractors. There are 24 violations and fines of $36.6 million for LANL, while WIPP received 13 violations and $17.7 million in fines. The investigation is not over, so more fines and civil penalties could lie ahead. Repairs to WIPP are estimated to cost some $550 million before it can reopen.

Most troubling of all, as reports by The New Mexican’s Patrick Malone and Staci Matlock reveal, is that safety procedures were not followed before the accident. LANL has been less than forthcoming after the accident.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a staunch supporter of LANL’s mission, has even raised the possibility that the contract to run the nuclear laboratory should be up for discussion. A consortium of Bechtel National Inc., Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group, URS Energy and Construction Corp. and the University of California — known as Los Alamos National Security LLC — currently runs the lab under a contract through 2018. The annual contract is worth $2.2 billion. That’s too much money for shoddy safety procedures.

For the state penalties to hurt — and they should — it’s essential that payments should not come out of taxpayers’ pockets. It also would be helpful if, rather than stall for time, the fines are paid. The New Mexico Environment Department, rightly, does not want the payments to come from funds set aside for environmental cleanup.

While fines are necessary, the guardians watching over LANL, WIPP and nuclear waste must increase scrutiny of operations. It’s clear from reports and from email evidence gathered by our reporters that some waste headed to WIPP was not packed correctly. Shortcuts were taken. Even the state Environment Department, so judgmental after the fact, did not catch the problems as they were happening. It fell short in its own oversight responsibilities.

Nuclear waste cannot sit, packed in drums dotting the hills around Los Alamos. It does need to be cleared from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Underground storage is necessary. But the process cannot become slipshod, with contractors worried more about profit goals instead of safety standards.

There’s a bright side to the accident at WIPP. It has opened a window to reveal some of what actually is taking place at Los Alamos National Laboratory as waste is shipped to underground storage. Citizens, Congress, the Department of Energy and others can take what we now know — that safety does not always come first — and demand better standards in the future.

If not, then Congress must make changes in how the lab is run. The contract runs through 2018, which offers plenty of time to cut the profiteers loose. The time for close scrutiny is now. Too much, both in dollars and safety, remains at stake.


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