Within a 10-day period in February 2014, two accidents happened at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico – the United States’ only underground repository for nuclear waste. First, a truck fire deep in the mine spread soot over key equipment and disabled the repository’s air monitoring system. Then a chemical reaction breached a waste drum, causing a radiological release that contaminated large areas of the repository. Two Accident Investigation Boards and a Technical Assessment Team identified the immediate causes of the accidents and recommended remedial actions. The author, who served as the Deputy Under Secretary of the Energy Department at the time of the accidents and during the three years WIPP was closed, examines the larger problems within the Energy Department and its contractors that set the stage for the accidents. He places the blame on mismanagement at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; structural problems created by a statutory “fence” between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the rest of the Energy Department, including the Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for disposing of the waste from more than 60 years of nuclear weapons production; and a breakdown of the “nuclear culture.”
A deep look at larger problems with the Energy Department and its contractors.