DOE releases Investigation of Incident at WIPP by Technical Assessment Team
On February 14, 2014, an incident in Panel 7 Room 7 (P7R7) of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) underground repository resulted in the release of radioactive material into the environment and contaminated 21 people with low-level radioactivity.
To add to the completed Accident Investigation Board (AIB) investigations, the Department of Energy (DOE) created a Technical Assessment Team (TAT) to determine what may have contributed to the failure of the waste drum. The TAT was led by scientists from several DOE National Laboratories. Los Alamos National Laboratory was not listed as a member of the team.
The report generally confirms what was already known but left the main question unanswered – What was the exact cause? The TAT could not determine the cause of the drum breach with absolute certainty because the investigation was hindered by “several constraints”.
The TAT’s overarching conclusion is that chemically incompatible contents of Drum 68660 from Los Alamos National Laboratory in combination with physical conditions caused the release.
The following key judgments led to and support that conclusion:
Key Judgment 1: Contents of Drum 68660 were chemically incompatible.
Key Judgment 2: Drum 68660 breached as the result of internal chemical reactions that generated heat and produced gases that built up pressure sufficient to overcome the drum vent and seal.
Key Judgment 3: Drum 68660 was the source of the radiological contamination in WIPP.
Key Judgment 4: Initiation of the thermal runaway was internal and not caused by phenomena outside Drum 68660.
Key Judgment 5: Thermal and pressure effects resulted in the movement of material during the release event and caused the damage observed in WIPP P7R7; the release did not result from a detonation.
The TAT did conclude that a glovebox glove in drum 68660 did not add to the reaction because none of the specialized glove materials were found on any monitors.
The TAT estimated that drum 68660 internally reached 350+ degrees Celsius after 70 days, which is the amount of time given from when the drum was packed at Los Alamos, shipped to WIPP, emplaced in the underground, to when it reacted and released. (350 degree Celsius = 662 degree Fahrenheit) The report did not estimate the temperature in the drum as it headed down the highway from Los Alamos to WIPP.
Scott Kovac, Operations and Research Director at Nuclear Watch New Mexico stated, “It looks like we may never know the exact cause of the February 14, 2014 release at WIPP. What we do know is that human beings are fallible, and nuclear waste will eventually escape whatever we devise to protect ourselves from it. The key question is, will the New Mexico Environment Department allow WIPP to reopen without knowing what caused the contamination to begin with?”
More to come as we continue to study the report.