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Workers prepare to enter the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., earlier this month. (Photo: Associated Press)

Workers prepare to enter the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., earlier this month. (Photo: Associated Press)

Safety Failures Pervasive at Site of Mysterious Nuclear Leak

U.S. government's own report faults declining safety culture for release of radiation at troubled New Mexico dump

Sarah Lazare

The airborne radiation leak at a federally-owned New Mexico nuclear waste dump that "was never supposed to leak" was caused by poor management, a dismal safety culture, and structural failures, according to the U.S. government's own investigation released Thursday.

The 302-page report (pdf) from the U.S. Department of Energy's Accident Investigation Board finds that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico was plagued by a lack of "rigorous" internal safety measures by Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the facility.

Furthermore, the report charges, the NWP and the Carlsbad Field Office of the Department of Energy "have allowed the safety culture at the WIPP project to deteriorate, and as a result workers "do not feel comfortable" speaking up about and documenting problems and dangers. “Questioning attitudes are not welcomed by management and many issues and hazards do not appear to be readily recognized by site personnel."

Investigators acknowledge they still do not know the cause of the leak that started February 14th and sent radioactive particles into the air, exposing at least 21 workers to radiation and alarming nearby residents. The release of radiation followed an underground fire on February 5th that forced the evacuation of the facility and sent six workers to the hospital with smoke inhalation-related injuries.

Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, told Common Dreams that though the report is damaging for the DOE and others, it fails to satisfactorily answer several key questions.

"They don't explain, for example, how much the contractor is being paid," said Hancock. "And they don't discuss why the contractor was hired if they can't do the job and why we the tax payers are paying them to do such a poor job."

In addition, the report indicates that the radioactive leak was short-lived without adequate evidece to back up that claim, charges Hancock.

"Why didn't they provide more detail about how the 21 workers were contaminated?" he added, referring to charges that workers were sent back to the site with inadequate protections after the leak was known to have occurred. "DOE bureaucrats have stated that workers' exposure levels were safe, but there are no doctors who specialize in treating people with internal radiation exposure who have spoken publicly on the subject."

The only deep-earth dump for radioactive waste in the U.S., WIPP remains closed, leaving radioactive waste across the country stranded, including 19 radioactive shipments that are currently being stored above-ground at the waste handling building at the WIPP facility.

"The report is filled with deficiencies," said Hancock. "And it's not news that there are major contractor and management problems, oversight problems, and a bad safety culture. People have been saying that for a long time."

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