On March 6, 2014, the Department of Energy held a town hall meeting for the residents of Carlsbad, NM to provide an update on the efforts of the WIPP facility to recover from the airborne contamination issue that occurred in the underground facility on February 14. DOE representatives then conducted a brief press conference summarizing that town hall meeting and answering additional questions.
DOE representatives included:
- David Huizenga, Senior Advisor for the U. S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management
- David Klaus, Deputy Under Secretary of Energy for Management and Performance
- Joe Franco, Manager, Carlsbad Field Office
The DOE headquarters representatives spent part of the day touring the site and addressing questions from facility employees regarding recovery plans.
Huizenga told the press conference that the headquarters representatives were impressed by the morale and the dedication of the workforce to conduct a safe and effective recovery. They emphasized that the recent event had a “very extremely minimal” effect on workers and essentially no impact off site. The follow up biological samples for 13 employees whose initial bioassay results indicated the possibility of internal contamination showed that there was no detectable plutonium or americium, the two isotopes that were released by the event.
Huizenga also emphasized the continued importance of WIPP to the national laboratory complex as it cleans up its Cold War legacy.
The next step in the process is to determine exactly what happened in the mine, first by using probes to provide initial information before sending people into the facility. Weather permitting, workers will be inserting the first probes into the mine shafts today (Friday, March 7) or during the weekend.
Franco emphasized that the staff will conduct a methodical recovery, with the primary consideration of protecting health, safety and the environment.
Huizenga described the town hall meeting as successful and stated that DOE had committed to providing information on a more regular basis with daily updates on the web site. He acknowledged a desire to improve communications over the recent weeks where lengthy periods of silence have raised some questions — even if the silence was simply caused by waiting for sample results.
Franco indicated that the sample results correlate to the type of material that is being stored in the currently open panel 7, room 7, but was not willing to speculate on what caused that material to be released into the facility. He confirmed that there is a rumor about a ceiling or wall collapse and stated that it probably came from the design basis safety analysis report that envisioned that as a possible scenario.
Klaus confirmed that the DOE is still evaluating the possibilities of obtaining permission to store “greater than class C” waste at the facility and continues to work through the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process associated with that permission. He indicated that there are still several steps remaining in the process, including determining the cause of the contamination release.
In his recent letter to the local community, Franco had mentioned a project to seal dampers in the ventilation system. During the press conference he provided more details about the system design, the size of the air ducts (15 feet diameter) involved, and the fact that the leakage being sealed was allowed as part of the initial design. The damper designed flow-through is 250 cubic feet per minute in a system with a total airflow through the HEPA filters of 100,000 CFM. The sealing project was completed on March 6.
Franco confirmed that all environmental samples — out of the hundreds taken — indicate indicate that all soil and water samples are at background with no detectable contamination. He stated that the environmental monitoring process will continue. He confirmed that the environmental monitoring process accounts for weather conditions at the time of the event.
The investigation of the cause of the Feb 5 facility fire remains open because the next steps require access to the damaged salt truck. That investigation will be completed once the facility has been reopened.
So far, there is no estimate available of the cost associated with the event or the recovery process.
As was pointed out by a commenter on another thread, the facility ventilation design should minimize the clean-up effort. It pulls air from the outside and past all of the areas where people work and waste is sealed. Then it flows over the part of the waste that is still actively being handled or was most recently handled and is not yet sealed by the action of the salt.
After passing over the active part of the stored waste, the air flow leaves the facility, either through the normal exhaust or through the HEPA filters. That design implies that the only part of the facility that should require any decontamination would be the part between panel 7 room 7 to the exhaust shaft and the exhaust shaft itself. The HEPA filters will presumably be replaced.