Recent events at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) provide an opportunity to reinforce the need to practice good communication skills in order to improve the future response to a contamination event.
Though there is no public hazard associated with airborne contamination levels of 0.64 Bq of Am-241 and 0.046 Bq of Pu-239/240, the New Mexico Environment Secretary has taken the WIPP leadership to task with regard to their handling of a situation that some knowledgable observers describe as a “puff”. It is worth noting that the EPA’s action level for the isotopes of concern is 37 Bq, more than 50 times the measured amounts.
To recap the situation, just before midnight on Friday, February 14, continuous air monitors in the WIPP alarmed. Immediately after the air monitors alarmed, the ventilation system shifted to pass exhaust air through high efficiency particulate absorption (HEPA) filters. It then shifted into recirculation mode to prevent any discharge into the atmosphere. The ventilation system functioned as designed, so there was no reason to suspect any substantial release to the environment.
There were no people in the facility at the time of the alarm.
The site leadership notified the appropriate government agencies and the press about the event and the fact that the site was sealed.
On Wednesday, February 19, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, the independent laboratory that is under contract to conduct environmental monitoring in the areas surrounding the WIPP, completed its analysis of the first of many samples taken from incredibly sensitive monitoring systems designed to provide post event details helpful in determining the exactly location and cause of any event. The CEMRC issued a press release describing the results in exquisite detail that same day.
This environmental monitoring program is not a real time process; there are no real time sensors that could provide the kind of sensitivity these devices provide. Under normal circumstances, analysis of filters from the monitoring systems takes about a week. When there is an event, there are certain parts of the process that can be somewhat accelerated, but the minimum time between a release and a sample result that provides any information related to that release will always be several days.
The right time to make sure that all of the right people know and understand this limitation on information development is before any event happens. The next best time is immediately after the event happens during the period when the scientists and technicians are busy performing their detailed work. If that work is not properly completed using specific, detailed protocols, the information will be unreliable and cause confusion.
Apparently, this communication process did not function properly, either because the people providing the information did not provide it clearly enough or because the people who should have been listening were not listening closely enough.
Here is how the New Mexico Environment Secretary communicated his displeasure about the communications flow.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said he traveled to Carlsbad as soon as he was told Wednesday night that radiation had been picked up by an above ground air sensor.
“We are wondering why it took a couple of days to confirm the radiological event outside of the underground,” he said. “We will demand that federal officials share information with the public in real time. That’s the reason we are here.”
If Secretary Flynn or his staff were told about the analysis process and the inherent time delays, they were not listening. If they were not told, they should have been.
Secretary Flynn was not just upset about the communication delay, he also criticized the fact that there was event a tiny amount of material picked up by the environmental monitors located outside of the facility.
Flynn, however, said, “Events like this should never occur. From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many. Our primary concern continues to be public safety.”
“Even though the levels detected are very low,” he said, “radiation is simply not supposed to be released outside the building.”
Those statements indicate a failed communications process that allowed a responsible official to believe that there is a perfect system in place that will never release any radiation. That is simply not possible. It not, however, necessary to be perfect to ensure public safety. There is no risk to anyone from contamination levels that are only detectable using protocols that require several days to complete.
People work in the underground storage facility. They need large quantities of fresh air to survive. The ventilation system provided in the WIPP moves a lot of air in and out of the underground cavern – 425,000 standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM) to be exact. Though the exhaust air can be directed through HEPA filers whenever there is any indication that it is contaminated, it is not routinely filtered because the filters would be routinely less than 100% capable and would require frequent maintenance or replacement with no added value.
As soon as the continuous air monitors alarmed, indicating the presence of radioactive material, the ventilation system shifted into the filter mode, reduced the flow rate, and then shifted into a recirculation mode. Since the facility was not occupied at the time of the event, the shift to recirculation probably happened more quickly than it would have if there had been people who would have still needed fresh air while they were being evacuated from 2150 feet underground.
The system in place is “pretty darned good”, but it is not absolutely perfect. The environmental monitoring systems are incredibly sensitive and can almost count atoms, so the likelihood of a detectable — but far less than hazardous — level is relatively high in the event that there is any contamination in the facility in the first place.
This information should have been routinely communicated to responsible officials, to the press, and to the general public. Even though the WIPP’s record up to this point has been almost flawless, no marketing material should ever imply that perfection is possible. People armed with appropriate knowledge can accept and applaud performance that is good, even exceptionally good unless they have been constantly told to expect absolute perfection.
Imagine how frustrating it would be to be a figure skater, an airline pilot, a quarterback, a surgeon, a half-pipe snowboarder, a waiter, a designated hitter, a mom, or even a writer if your judges, audience, or customers considered you a complete failure anytime you did something that was not exactly right.
The response in this situation has also been hampered by the incorrect assumption that even the tiniest dose of radiation is so harmful that it must be avoided at all costs. According to all released information, there were never any significant levels measured anywhere. There is no health-based reason to have limited site access to “essential” personnel.