On Wednesday, February 5, 2014, a salt-hauling truck in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) caught fire when flammable liquids (either diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid) in the engine compartment contacted hot surfaces, most likely the catalytic converter. Though the fire filled much of the underground with smoke, all 86 workers underground at the time of the fire safely evacuated.
Six people were treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation; seven more workers were exposed to damaging doses of smoke but they treated on site without being transported to the hospital.
The Accident Investigation Report has been completed and can be downloaded from the WIPP web site.
One of the major contributing causes was inadequate vehicle preventative maintenance. The accident investigation team noted a significant difference between the vehicle maintenance programs for vehicles used to move nuclear waste and those used to move more mundane materials like salt. WIPP has a strong nuclear safety culture, but the mine safety culture that should be a part of any underground industrial activity needs to be improved.
That is an all too common situation in the nuclear world. Because of the extremely tight rules and standards applied to all activities directly associated with nuclear materials, activities in areas that seem unrelated to nuclear materials often receive less attention.
One of the truths about all human endeavors is that you cannot make everything a “top priority.” Another is that there is a finite amount of time and resources available to any organization. The more focus and prioritization a group of people places on isolated portions of its activities, the more other portions suffer due to incorrect resource allocations.
The salt haul truck fire shows that activities that are unrelated to nuclear materials can have very serious consequences, especially in a confined, underground space. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the process of learning the lesson that mine safety needs more emphasis.
Putting more emphasis on mine safety means one of two things. Either DOE needs to provide more resources to the WIPP project or some of the resources the management at WIPP currently directs towards striving for perfection in handling nuclear waste need to be spread a little more evenly.
Here is a little more food for thought and perhaps an interesting conversation.
The airborne contamination event at WIPP that has been previously covered (see related posts below) resulted in virtually unmeasurable doses to humans and no measurable surface contamination outside of the mine. Though it was unrelated to the fire, it happened nine days later.
But there was a radiological incident at WIPP on Feb. 14. Radiation was detected in the WIPP underground and trace amounts of americium and plutonium were detected above ground. WIPP’s monitoring and filtration system kept almost all of the material from getting into the air above ground, and right now there’s still speculation as to what happened in the underground.
I don’t want to diminish in any way what happened at WIPP. This has been absolutely the most serious incident in the 15-year history of the project.
He was referring to the airborne contamination event, not the fire. I suspect that most people would agree with Mayor Janway, but it is worth wondering how we arrived at a point where a fire that threatened the lives of 86 people and required 13 people to receive some form of medical attention is considered to be “absolutely” less serious than a minor release of radioactive material in an uninhabited mine.