“Are WIPP workers getting infected at the site and taking it back into the communities?” Don Hancock said. “WIPP is clearly not always a safe place, but we don’t know if WIPP is a place where workers get infected or if infected workers brought it to WIPP.”
In August and September, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant received about $3.8 million per month of federal COVID-19 funding as the U.S. Department of Energy elected to renew the facility’s primary contractor for one year despite an option to keep Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) at the helm of the nuclear waste repository until 2022.
NWP spokesman Donavan Mager said the site received $3.816 million in August and $3.803 in September and that the funding was designated to “support operations” although he did not elaborate on how, specifically, the public money was to be spent.
Per the latest reports from WIPP, 39 workers had contracted COVID-19 as the pandemic appeared to pose a resurgence in New Mexico in recent weeks.
The facility slowed operations in the spring when the virus first struck the state but appeared to ramp up shipments and emplacements of waste in the late summer and fall.
Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based government watchdog group pointed to 10 rapid responses from state health officials related to WIPP, with five listed at the facility and another five specifically for NWP.
Four of the responses to NWP were reported this week: one on Sept. 6 and three on Sept. 8.
Rapid responses are used when a business reports COVID-19 infection to the state and receives added requirements for sanitization and other protocols from the state to stop the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, cases in Eddy County continued to rise with 14 new cases and a death from the virus reported on on Oct. 8, 27 new cases on Thursday.
“Are WIPP workers getting infected at the site and taking it back into the communities?” Hancock said. “WIPP is clearly not always a safe place, but we don’t know if WIPP is a place where workers get infected or if infected workers brought it to WIPP.”
WIPP contract extended by one year
NWP’s current contract was signed in 2012 and was last extended in 2017 until 2020 with an option to extend for either one or two additional years.
James Mason, spokesman for the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office said the DOE split the two-year option in one-year extension and two six month extensions to be used as needed as a new contract is produced.
He said the DOE was procuring a “follow-on” contract which are often used to contract for work that is being done in phases, such as NWP’s oversight and operation of WIPP’s mission to dispose of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste taken from national laboratories and other DOE facilities across the country.
“DOE is currently in the process of procuring a follow-on contract,” Mason said. “In connection with this contract transition process, DOE split the last two-year option on the current contract into a one-year option and two six-month options, pending timely award of the new contract.”
The extension was announced on Sept. 15 for the continued management and operation of WIPP by NWP – a joint venture between Amentum, BWX Technologies and ORANO.
The selected option runs through September 30, 2021 and was valued at about $296 million which brought the contract’s overall value to $2.7 billion.
Hancock said the one-year extension could be in response to poor performance by NWP since an accidental radiological release on Feb.14, 2014 led to a three-year closure of the facility.
“That’s a bad thing, Hancock said. “NWP has been a poorly-performing contractor since 2014. Eighteen months into its contract, the site was shut down and it still has not recovered. The contract should have been terminated in 2014. It’s rewarding poor performance with excess bonuses and spending.
“They have done a poor job. It should not be extended anymore.”
Struggles at the WIPP site could have led to the hiring of Joe Franco, Hancock said, who was announced to be serving as a “special advisor” to NWP President Sean Dunagan as of Oct. 26.
Joe Franco was hired to serve as an adviser to Nuclear Waste Partnership President Sean Dunagan.
Franco, a native of Carlsbad, began his career at WIPP in 1989 working for the former primary contractor Westinghouse, serving in multiple roles until 2006 when he took a job at the Hanford Site in Washington state.
He returned to WIPP in 2012, as the Carlsbad Field Office manager and oversaw the facility’s recovery efforts stemming from the 2014 event until returning to Hanford in 2015.
While Mager said Franco had “considerable experience” in nuclear operations, he did not elaborate on what Franco’s tasks would be as a “special advisor” to the president of the WIPP main contractor.
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He could be used to improve relations between NWP, the DOE and the WIPP workforce, Hancock said, while also strengthening public communication.
“I assume that it’s partly related to NWP needs help, which they clearly do, and it’s partly related to him coming back to Carlsbad,” Hancock said. “Joe has a lot of experience on the contractor side and the DOE side. One of Joe’s strengths is he has the ability to community with the workforce and the public.
“NWP should be doing a better job of that.”