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New Mexico Rolls Out Its Conditions for WIPP Restart
State Wants to See NNSA Out of Los Alamos Cleanup

Kenneth Fletcher
WC Monitor

SUMMERLIN, Nev.—New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn this week outlined several conditions the state of New Mexico wants the Department of Energy to meet before moving forward with the restart of operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, ranging from identifying the root cause of the radiation release that occurred at WIPP earlier this year to changes in management approach. Operations at WIPP have been shut down seven months since a Feb. 5 underground fire and Feb. 14 radiological event, and DOE has yet to pinpoint the cause of the release. NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn said here that the trigger for the event first must be identified. “We, the state, will not allow WIPP to reopen until we know what caused the release and until we are confident that this problem will not occur again,” Flynn said in remarks at this year’s RadWaste Summit.

New Mexico remains committed to reopening the facility, Flynn emphasized. “The state is 100 percent supportive of the WIPP facility,” he said. “This facility is too important to fail. This facility must be successful. I’m absolutely convinced that we can get this facility open, and I think we can resume limited operations by the end of 2015 if we work very hard.” That would be ahead of the early 2016 time frame for restarting limited operations in the draft recovery plan being developed by DOE and WIPP managing contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, Flynn said.

DOE’s Accident Investigation Board has for months examined potential causes of the radiological release at WIPP, which is believed to have originated in a waste drum from Los Alamos National Laboratory that was found in the WIPP underground charred and cracked partially open among other partly burnt drums in Panel 7. Theories have centered on a reaction within the drum that may have involved nitrate salts, but so far laboratory tests have not proved conclusive. Most recently a new round of samples from the damaged drum has been sent to laboratories for testing.

State: Cause Must Be Verified by Independent Team

In order to regain confidence in the facility, New Mexico needs a firm answer on the cause of the event that has been verified by an independent peer-reviewed team, such as from a university, Flynn said. “Uncertainty in the causal analysis will lead to uncertainty in how this happened, and if there is uncertainty then shipments cannot move forward until newer and more far-reaching procedures are developed such as more extensive sampling and testing of each container to determine basic characteristics such as ignitability, corrosivity and reactivity,” Flynn said. He noted that investigators are getting closer to identifying the root cause. “I think we are in a much stronger position today than we were six months ago. But I still think that the pace is too slow,” he said in an interview with WC Monitor this week on the sidelines of the meeting.

DOE Hopes to Release Next Investigation Report Before End of Year

DOE hopes to release the second phase of the accident investigation report by the end of the year, which will cover the cause of the release, Frank Marcinowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Waste Management in DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, said at this week’s meeting. “Before we can fully define the recovery plan and any program changes, we must first understand what happened at the WIPP facility,” he said, adding later: “The technical assessment team and the Los Alamos groups are all working from the scientific point, and that will feed into the Accident Investigation Board. I’m not sure what they are going to find, but we are going to wait for those findings in order to assess. I don’t know that we are going to get a 100 percent certainty that we know what the cause, but based on their best technical judgment they are going to give us an idea of what happened so we can make sure we’ve got procedures and processes in place to ensure that there is no duplication of what had happened that led to this event.”

EM Should Take Over Legacy Waste at LANL, Flynn Says

In addition to identification of the cause of the radiological release at WIPP, NMED believes DOE’s Office of Environmental Management should take over management of all legacy waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is currently managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Flynn said numerous issues encountered at LANL would be resolved by such a move ( see related story). “NNSA should not be in the
business of cleaning up the legacy waste at the sites,” he said in remarks at the Summit. “The money is already coming from the EM program, so EM sends NNSA the money but they don’t get to determine how to spend the money for the cleanup. I believe very strongly that EM needs to be given control of legacy waste cleanup because it’s part of their core mission and because they are already funding the cleanup.”

Such a move has been suggested before, DOE’s Marcinowski said. “I can say that all aspects of this are being discussed as to how we move forward within headquarters and at the site, what is the best way to move forward,” he said. “All aspects are being discussed at this point. I can’t say that there’s been any decisions on anything in that regard. We’re evaluating every approach on how best to move forward.”

Manager With Stronger Authority Needed at DOE’s Carlsbad Office, NMED Says

Another step DOE should take is appointing a manager at the Department’s Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees WIPP, with stronger authority, Flynn said. “Headquarters cannot manage this recovery from Washington, D.C. When you have an emergency situation you need boots on the ground,” he said, adding: “This entire situation will be expedited and will be improved by having someone assigned to the Carlsbad Field Office who has a direct line to headquarters, who is empowered with decisionmaking authority, to make the decisions and provide the approvals that are necessary in order to move the recovery forward.”

DOE: Recovery Not Run Out of HQ

However, DOE officials responded at this week’s meeting that the site already has strong leadership in place with CBFO Manager Joe Franco. “I don’t think we have been trying to run the recovery out of headquarters. Joe Franco is clearly the fed in charge at the site. He’s been doing a great job of coordinating with us at headquarters and keeping us informed of what’s happening at the site and making decisions that need to be made,” Marcinowski said.

DOE has also appointed Tom Teynor as the senior federal recovery manager at the CBFO and there is strong leadership with NWP’s Bob McQuinn and Jim Blankenhorn, EM Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Waste Management Christine Gelles said at the RadWaste Summit. “I think we have a framework that is working to guide the development of a robust plan,” she said. “In terms of whether there needs to be more decisionmaking in Carlsbad, Carlsbad’s not able to make the budget request and argue with the Office of Management and Budget or the Chief Financial Officer or Congress directly and at the same time be overseeing the recovery. So I think it’s necessarily going to involve partnership and a balance of influence between headquarters and the site.”

NMED Wants to Eliminate ‘Silo Effect,’ Seeks Panel Closure

NMED is also hoping to eliminate the “silo effect” among the numerous entities responsible for overseeing and regulating WIPP operations, Flynn said. “We have 22 different entities that I’m aware of that have some kind of oversight role of WIPP operation,” he said. “So adding more cooks to the kitchen, I don’t think that’s the answer. The problem I see is that there’s a silo effect from all these different entities, and by dividing up these responsibilities it created a silo effect and there is a lack of accountability among these different entities.” He held up as an example the lack of regular inspections in recent years by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Another NMED condition for the restart of WIPP is closure of the remaining unclosed panels at the facility starting with Panel 6, which contains nitrate salt-bearing waste that is thought to have contributed to the radiological release. Earlier this year, NMED told DOE to close the panels under an order, and DOE has developed and is implementing a panel closure plan. “They are already required as a condition in their permit to close each panel when it’s full,” Flynn said. “They’ve been able to successfully close three panels and they still have three more panels that need to be closed, and the first priority needs to be closing Panel 6 given the potential risk that is associated with those nitrate-bearing salt containers in Panel 6.”

NMED believes DOE can achieve these steps and a timely reopening of WIPP under a focused effort. “I have confidence that given the right resources and right direction from headquarters that NWP and the Carlsbad Field Office could resume limited operations by the end of 2015,” Flynn told WC Monitor. “I have no doubt that can be achieved. But I’m also very aware DOE and their historical inability to keep to schedules that have been set out.”

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