Accidents at world's only deep underground radioactive waste repository

Sources of information on accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico

Department of Energy:

DoE, 30 Sept 2014, 'Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan',

DoE, April 2014, 'Radiological Release Accident Investigation Report'.


Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC):

SRIC, 'WIPP Radiation Release', 12 Sept 2014,

SRIC, 'Nuclear Waste Documents',

SRIC, 'What the WIPP Recovery Plan Says − And What It Doesn't', 10 Oct 2014,

Carlsbad Environment Monitoring & Research Center − New Mexico State University:

New Mexico Environment Department:

'LANL Documents Related to WIPP':

Santa Fe New Mexican:

Nuclear Watch New Mexico:

Los Alamos Study Group:,

New Mexico nuclear waste accident a 'horrific comedy of errors' that exposes deeper problems

27 Nov 2014, The Ecologist

The precise cause of the February 14 accident involving a radioactive waste barrel at the world's only deep geological radioactive waste repository has yet to be determined, but information about the accident continues to come to light.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a dump site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 metres) underground.

On February 14, a heat-generating chemical reaction − the Department of Energy (DOE) calls it a 'deflagration' rather than an explosion − compromised the integrity of a barrel and spread contaminants through more than 3,000 feet of tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, into the environment, and to an air monitoring approximately 3,000 feet north-west of the exhaust shaft.[1] The accident resulted in 22 workers receiving low-level internal radiation exposure.

Investigators believe a chemical reaction between nitrate salts and organic 'kitty litter' used as an absorbent generated sufficient heat to melt seals on at least one barrel. But experiments have failed to reproduce the chemical reaction, and hundreds of drums of similarly packaged nuclear waste are still intact, said DOE spokesperson Lindsey Geisler. "There's still a lot we don't know", she said.[2]

Terry Wallace from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) said: "LANL did not consider the chemical reactions that unique combinations of radionuclides, acids, salts, liquids and organics might create."[3]

Determining the cause of the accident has been made all the more difficult because the precise composition of the waste in the damaged barrel is unknown.[4,5] A former WIPP official said: "The DOE sites that sent in the waste got careless in documenting what was being shipped in ... The contractors at the sites packing the waste were not exactly meticulous. When we complained to DOE, it was made clear we were just to keep taking the waste and to shut up." [6]

Operations to enable WIPP to reopen will cost approximately US$242 million according to preliminary estimates by the DOE. In addition, a new ventilation system is required which will cost US$65-261 million.[7] Taking into account indirect costs such as delays with the national nuclear weapons clean-up program, the total cost could approach US$1 billion.[4] Further costs could be incurred if the State of New Mexico fines DOE for its safety lapses at WIPP.[5]

The DOE hopes WIPP will reopen in 2016 but the shut-down could extend to 2017 or beyond.[8]

A 'horrific comedy of errors'

British academic Rebecca Lunn, a professor of engineering geosciences, describes how waste repositories would work in a perfect world. "Geological disposal of nuclear waste involves the construction of a precision-engineered facility deep below the ground into which waste canisters are carefully manoeuvred. Before construction of a geological repository can even be considered, an environmental safety case must be developed that proves the facility will be safe over millions of years."[9]

Prof. Lunn's description is far removed from the situation that prevails at WIPP. Robert Alvarez, a former assistant to the energy secretary, said that a safety analysis conducted before WIPP opened predicted accidents such as the February 14 deflagration once every 200,000 years. Yet WIPP has been open for merely 15 years.[5] WIPP is on track for not one but over 13,000 radiation release accidents over a 200,000 year period.

The WIPP accident resulted from a "horrific comedy of errors" according to James Conca, a scientific adviser and WIPP expert: "This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge." [4]

The problems began long before February 14, and they extend beyond WIPP. Serious problems have been evident across the US nuclear weapons program. Systemic problems have been evident with DOE oversight.

The problematic role of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) − a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE − is emphasised in a detailed analysis by investigative journalist Joseph Trento.[6] A DOE official quoted by Trento said a root problem is "the fact that DOE has no real operational control over the NNSA. Under the guise of national security, NNSA runs the contractors, covers up accidents and massive cost overruns and can fire any DOE employee who tries to point out a problem. Because they control so many jobs and contractors, every administration refuses to take them on."

Trento explains the realpolitik:

"The contractor game at NNSA is played this way: Major corporations form LLC's [limited liability companies] and bid for NNSA and DOE contracts. For example, at SRS [Savannah River Site] they bid to clean up waste and get some of the billions of dollars from Obama's first term stimulus money. Things go wrong, little gets cleaned up, workers get injured or exposed to radiation and outraged NNSA management cancels the contract. A new LLC is formed by the same NNSA list of corporate partners and they are asked to bid on a new management contract. The new LLC hires the same workers as the old management company and the process gets repeated again and again. The same mistakes are made and the process keeps repeating itself. These politically connected DOE contractors, responsible for tens of billions of dollars in failed projects and mishandling of the most deadly materials science has created, have been protected by the biggest names in both the Republican and Democratic parties at an enormous cost to the US taxpayers, public health and the environment."

Major deficiencies at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Of immediate relevance to the February 14 WIPP accident are problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The waste barrel involved in the accident was sent from LANL to WIPP. LANL staff approved the switch from an inorganic clay absorbent to an organic material in September 2013. That switch is believed to be one of the causes of the February 14 accident. LANL also approved the use of a neutraliser that manufacturers warned shouldn't be mixed with certain chemicals.[10]

A September 30 report by the DOE's Office of Inspector General identifies "several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed" to the February 14 WIPP accident.[11]

The report states:

"Of particular concern, not all waste management procedures at LANL were properly vetted through the established procedure revision process nor did they conform to established environmental requirements.

"In our view, immediate action is necessary to ensure that these matters are addressed and fully resolved before TRU [transuranic] waste operations are resumed, or, for that matter, before future mixed radioactive hazardous waste operations are initiated.

"In particular, we noted that:

  • Despite specific direction to the contrary, LANL made a procedural change to its existing waste procedures that did not conform to technical guidance provided by the Department for the processing of nitrate salt waste; and
  • Contractor officials failed to ensure that changes to waste treatment procedures were properly documented, reviewed and approved, and that they incorporated all environmental requirements for TRU waste processing. These weaknesses led to an environment that permitted the introduction of potentially incompatible materials to TRU storage drums. Although yet to be finally confirmed, this action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications."

WIPP failings

The February 14 accident has shone a light on multiple problems at WIPP (discussed in greater detail in Nuclear Monitor #787).[12] A DOE-appointed Accident Investigation Board released a report into the accident in April.[13] The report identified the "root cause" of the accident to be the many failings of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the WIPP site, and DOE's Carlsbad Field Office. The report criticised their "failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard. The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed / ineffective recognition and response to the release."

The Accident Investigation Board report states that personnel did not adequately recognise, categorise, or classify the emergency and did not implement adequate protective actions in a timely manner. It further noted that there is a lack of a questioning attitude at WIPP; a reluctance to bring up and document issues; an acceptance and normalisation of degraded equipment and conditions; and a reluctance to report issues to management, indicating a chilled work environment.

Trento said: "The report has a familiar litany and tone: Ignored warnings from the Defense Facilities Board, lack of DOE contractor supervision, and a missing safety culture. There are hundreds of similar reports about the Savannah River Site, LANL, Oak Ridge, Hanford and other DOE national laboratories and sensitive national security sites. The Department of Energy is in serious trouble."[6]

A US Environmental Protection Agency review of air testing at WIPP in February and March found discrepancies in recorded times and dates of sample collections, flawed calculation methods, conflicting data and missing documents. It also found that WIPP managers sometimes said air samples contained no detectable levels of radiation when measurable levels were present.[14]

Compromised response to the accident

A degraded safety culture was responsible for the accident, and the same failings inevitably compromised the response to the accident. Among other problems:[4,6]

  • The DOE contractor could not easily locate plutonium waste canisters because the DOE did not install an upgraded computer system to track the waste inside WIPP.
  • The lack of an underground video surveillance system made it impossible to determine if a waste container had been breached until long after the accident. A worker inspection team did not enter the underground caverns until April 4 − seven weeks after the accident.
  • The WIPP computerised Central Monitoring System has not been updated to reflect the current underground configuration of underground vaults with waste containers.
  • 12 out of 40 phones did not work so emergency communications could not reach all parts of WIPP in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
  • WIPP's ventilation and filtration system did not prevent radiation reaching the surface, due to neglect.
  • The emergency response moved in slow motion. The first radiation alarm sounded at 11.14pm. Not until 9.34am did managers order workers on the surface of the site to move to a safe location.

Everything that was supposed to happen, didn't. Everything that wasn't supposed to happen, did.


1. Southwest Research and Information Center, 12 Sept 2014, 'WIPP Radiation Release'.

2. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 30 June 2014, 'Scientists unable to recreate chemical reaction suspected in New Mexico radiation leak'.

3. Alex Jacobs, 1 Oct 2014, 'Radiation Leak Linked to Los Alamos; Do We Really Want Biological Agents There?'

4. Ralph Vartabedian, 24 Aug 2014, 'Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery'.

5. Matthew Wald, 29 Oct 2014, 'In U.S. Cleanup Efforts, Accident at Nuclear Site Points to Cost of Lapses'.

6. Joseph Trento, 5 June 2014, 'Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster'.

7. Department of Energy, 30 Sept 2014, 'Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Plan'.

8. Caty Enders, 30 Sept 2014, 'Congress pushes nuclear expansion despite accidents at weapons lab'.

9. Rebecca Bell, 2 Nov 2014, 'Nuclear waste must be out of sight, but not out of mind'.

10. Staci Matlock, 2 Sept 2014, 'Review, relabeling of LANL waste raises questions about scope of problem'.

11. DOE Office of Inspector General, 30 Sept 2014, 'Remediation of Selected Transuranic Waste Drums at Los Alamos National Laboratory − Potential Impact on the Shutdown of the Department's Waste Isolation Plant'.

12. 'Fire and leaks at the world's only deep geological waste repository', 6 June 2014, Nuclear Monitor #787.

13. DoE 'Radiological Release Accident Investigation Report'.

14. Laura Zuckerman / Reuters, 22 Aug 2014, 'Air Testing Lapse At New Mexico Nuclear Waste Dump Blamed On Staff Vacancy'.

One deep underground dump, one dud

Nuclear Monitor #801, 9 April 2015

There is only one deep underground dump (DUD) for nuclear waste anywhere in the world, and it's a dud. The broad outline of this dud DUD story is simple and predictable: over a period of 10−15 years, high standards gave way to complacency, cost-cutting and corner-cutting.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, USA, is a burial site for long-lived intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons program. More than 171,000 waste drums have been stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 metres) underground since WIPP opened in 1999.

Earl Potter, a lawyer who represented Westinghouse, WIPP's first operating contractor, said: "At the beginning, there was an almost fanatical attention to safety. I'm afraid the emphasis shifted to looking at how quickly and how inexpensively they could dispose of this waste."1

Likewise, Rick Fuentes, president of the Carlsbad chapter of the United Steelworkers union, said: "In the early days, we had to prove to the stakeholders that we could operate this place safely for both people and the environment. After time, complacency set in. Money didn't get invested into the equipment and the things it should have."1

Before WIPP opened, sceptical locals were invited to watch experiments to assure them how safe the facility would be. Waste containers were dropped from great heights onto metal spikes, submerged in water and rammed by trains.1 Little did they know that a typo and kitty litter would be the undoing of WIPP.

On 14 February 2014, a drum rupture spread contaminants through about one-third of the underground caverns and tunnels, up the exhaust shaft, and into the outside environment. Twenty-two people were contaminated with low-level radioactivity.

A Technical Assessment Team convened by the US Department of Energy (DoE) has recently released a report into the February 2014 accident.2 The report concludes that just one drum was the source of radioactive contamination, and that the drum rupture resulted from internal chemical reactions.

Chemically incompatible contents in the drum − nitrate salt residues, organic sorbent and an acid neutralization agent − supported heat-generating chemical reactions which led to the creation of gases within the drum. The build-up of gases displaced the drum lid, venting radioactive material and hot matter that further reacted with the air or other materials outside the drum to cause the observed damage.

Kitty litter

The problems began at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where the drum was packed. One of the problems at LANL was the replacement of inorganic absorbent with an organic absorbent − kitty litter. Carbohydrates in the kitty litter provided fuel for a chemical reaction with metal nitrate salts being disposed of.

The switch to kitty litter took effect on 1 August 2012. LANL staff were explicitly directed to "ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste" when packaging drums of nitrate salts. LANL's use of organic kitty litter defied clear instructions from WIPP to use an inorganic absorbent.3

Why switch from inorganic absorbent to organic kitty litter? The most likely explanation is that the problem originated with a typo in notes from a meeting at LANL about how to package "difficult" waste for shipment to WIPP − and the subsequent failure of anyone at LANL to correct the error. In email correspondence, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, said: "General consensus is that the 'organic' designation was a typo that wasn't caught."3

LANL officials have since acknowledged several violations of its Hazardous Waste Facility Permit including the failure to follow proper procedures in making the switch to organic litter, and the lack of follow-up on waste that tests showed to be highly acidic.4

Ongoing risks

The heat generated by the rupture of drum #68660 may have destabilized up to 55 other drums that were in close proximity. A June 2014 report by LANL staff based at WIPP said the heat "may have dried out some of the unreacted oxidizer-organic mixtures increasing their potential for spontaneous reaction. The dehydration of the fuel-oxidizer mixtures caused by the heating of the drums is recognized as a condition known to increase the potential for reaction."5

The Albuquerque Journal reported on March 15 that 368 drums with waste comparable to drum #68660 are stored underground at WIPP − 313 in Panel 6, and 55 in Room 7 of Panel 7, the same room as drum #68660. WIPP operators are trying to isolate areas considered to be at risk with chain links, brattice cloth to restrict air flow, mined salt buffers and steel bulkheads. Efforts to shut off particular rooms and panels have been delayed and complicated by radiological contamination, limitations on the number of workers and equipment that can be used due to poor ventilation, and months of missed maintenance that followed the February 2014 accident.6

An Associated Press report states that since September 2012, LANL packed up to 5,565 drums with organic kitty litter. Of particular concern are 16 drums with highly acidic contents as well as nitrate salts. Of those 16 drums, 11 are underground at WIPP (one of them is drum #68660), and the other five are in temporary storage at a private waste facility in Andrews, Texas.4

Freedom of Information revelations

The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper has revealed further details about problems before and after the February 2014 accident, based on material from a Freedom of Information Act request.3

The New Mexican reports that LANL workers came across a batch of waste that was highly acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. A careful review of treatment options should have followed, but instead LANL and its contractors took shortcuts, adding acid neutralizer as well as kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The wrong neutralizer was used, exacerbating the problem.3

One of these waste drums was #68660. Documents accompanying the drum from LANL to WIPP made no mention of the high acidity or the neutralizer, and they said that it contained an inorganic absorbent.3

The decision to take shortcuts was likely motivated by pressure to meet a deadline to remove waste from an area at LANL considered vulnerable to fire. Meeting the deadline would have helped LANL contractors' extend their lucrative contracts to package waste at LANL and transport it to WIPP.3

For two years preceding the February 2014 incident, LANL refused to allow inspectors conducting annual audits for the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) inside the facility where waste was treated, saying the auditors did not have appropriate training to be around radioactive waste. The NMED did not insist on gaining access because, in the words of a departmental spokesperson, it was "working on higher priority duties at the time that mandated our attention."3

There were further lapses after the drum rupture. The New Mexican reported:

"Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste − even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence − and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository."3

Several months after the rupture of drum #68660, an LANL chemist discovered that the contents of the drum matched those of a patented explosive. Personnel at WIPP were not informed of the potential for an explosive reaction for nearly another week − and they only learned about the problem after a DoE employee leaked a copy of the chemist's memo to a colleague in Carlsbad the night before a planned entry into the room that held the ruptured drum. That planned entry was cancelled. Workers in protective suits entered the underground area several days later to collect samples.3

"I am appalled that LANL didn't provide us this information," Dana Bryson from DoE's Carlsbad Field Office wrote in an email when she learned of the memo.3

The DoE employee who first alerted WIPP personnel to the threat was reprimanded by the DoE's Los Alamos Site Office for sharing the information.3


Inevitably the clean-up has faced problems due to radioactive contamination in the underground panels and tunnels, and delays in routine underground maintenance because of the contamination. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on some of these problems:

"In October, when a fan was tested for the first time since the accident, it kicked up low levels of radioactive materials that escaped from the mine. Waste drums that normally would have been permanently disposed of within days of their arrival at WIPP instead were housed in an above-ground holding area for months and leaked harmful but nonradioactive vapors that sickened four workers. A chunk of the cavern's ceiling crashed to the ground after the contamination delayed for months the routine bolting that would have stabilized the roof."1

Another problem is that workers are entering underground areas that are not being monitored for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Monitoring of these compounds, a condition of WIPP's permit from the state of New Mexico, has not been taking place since February 2014 because of limited access to contaminated underground areas.5

Don Hancock from the Southwest Research and Information Center said:

"They have no intention of starting to do the volatile organic compound monitoring in the underground at least until January of 2016. They fully intend to keep sending workers into the underground with no intention of following this requirement. It's in violation of the permit, and the Environment Department should say so."5


The NMED has fined the DoE US$54 million (€49.2m). The Department identified 13 violations at WIPP, and imposed penalties of US$17.7 million (€16.1m). The Department identified 24 violations at LANL, and imposed penalties of US$36.6 million (€33.3m).7 The DoE is appealing the fines.8

The DoE says that any state fines it pays for the WIPP accident will come from money appropriated to clean up nuclear weapons sites in New Mexico. A 2016 budget year summary presented in February by DoE's Office of Environmental Management says: "Any fines and penalties assessed on the EM [environmental management] program would be provided by cleanup dollars, resulting in reduced funding for cleanup activities."8

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn responded:

"Essentially, DoE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws. States like New Mexico welcome federal facilities into our communities with the understanding that these facilities will respect the health and safety of our citizens by complying with federal and state laws."8

The NMED is working on a new compliance order that could include fines of more than US$100 million (€91.1m). Flynn said:

"We've indicated all along that if DoE is willing to take accountability for the events that caused the release and work with the state then we'd be willing to release them from any further liability at Los Alamos and WIPP. If DoE is not willing to take accountability for what's occurred, then they are going to face significant additional penalties."9

A February 22 editorial in the Albuquerque Journal states:

"It would behoove the DoE to quit poisoning the well when it doesn't have another option for disposing of this kind of waste underground. ... So the DOE should start paying up and playing fair with the only game in town."10

Greg Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group said that an increase in weapons spending proposed by the Obama administration would pay "all the NMED-proposed fines a few times over."8

Clean-up costs

Costs associated with the February 2014 accident include clean-up costs, fines, and costs associated with managing the backlog of waste at other sites until it can be sent to WIPP. Total costs will be at least US$500 million (€455m).1

WIPP is unlikely to be fully operational until at least 2018 according to federal Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. "We are targeting 2018 but I have to admit that that remains a little uncertain; the key project is the new ventilation system and that is still undergoing engineering analysis," Moniz said in February.

Don Hancock doubts that the 2018 timeline can be met. Salt mines exist across the world, he said, but reopening a contaminated salt mine following a radiological release is unprecedented and the government has no model to follow.11

Earl Potter, the former Westinghouse lawyer with a long association with WIPP, told the New Mexican that he doubted whether WIPP could continue if another radiation leak happened during the recovery process. "We can survive one," he said, "but two, I don't think so."1


1. Patrick Malone, 14 Feb 2015, 'Repository's future uncertain, but New Mexico town still believes',

2. Technical Assessment Team, March 2015, 'Investigation of Incident at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant'


Full report:

3. Patrick Malone, 15 Nov 2014, 'LANL officials downplayed waste's dangers even after leak',

4. Jeri Clausing / Associated Press, 4 July 2014, 'U.S. lab admits violating nuke-waste permit',

5. Patrick Malone, 29 Nov 2014, 'Emails raise questions about risks to WIPP workers sent underground',

6. Lauren Villagran, 15 March 2015, 'Roof collapses pose safety risk for workers at WIPP',

7. WNN, 8 Dec 2014, 'Fines follow WIPP incidents',

8. Mark Oswald, 20 Feb 2015, 'DOE says any fines for WIPP leak will come from clean-up money',

9. 10 Feb 2015, 'New Mexico Considers More Fines Over Nuke Leak',

10. Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board, 22 Feb 2015, 'Editorial: Balking at fines won't help DOE reach a nuke solution',

11. Meg Mirshak, 24 March 2015, 'New Mexico group doubts WIPP repository will reopen by deadline, leaving waste stranded at Savannah River Site',