No WIPP leak detected
By Kyle Marksteiner, Carlsbad Current-Argus Staff Writer
CARLSBAD — The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has implemented a "safety pause" after officials noticed a gash in one of the drums of transuranic waste being placed at the underground repository, but no radioactive leaks have been detected.
"We don't consider it to be a problem with respect to release or any exposure," said Roger Nelson, chief scientist with the Department of Energy's Carlsbad Field Office.
"The fact that it occurred caused us pause, and we want to make sure we understand all of the elements to make sure our work force realizes the potential severity."
Nelson said the gash was discovered following routine waste emplacement operations at around 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning. A stack of seven drums of transuranic waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory were being placed on top of an overpack container of other drums. Shipments of waste are currently being placed into Room 3 of Panel 4 of the underground repository.
"One of the steps after the emplacement operation is to have a technician look around and categorize where each individual drum wound up," Nelson said. "He noticed a small puncture to one of the drums on the top stack. The puncture was right in line with a protuberance of a piece of metal shelving. It was basically a break in the skin of the drum."
Nelson said officials believe that the puncture took place during the emplacement of the drums. The nearby shelving units hold magnesium oxide bags. Magnesium oxide bags are placed on top of waste stacks and would minimize the ability of radionuclides to be dissolved in brine water, were it to ever enter the repository.
In response, DOE officials evacuated the underground at WIPP. A technician took a sample of the material around the gash, and no radioactivity was detected. Employees who were underground at the time were all examined and turned out clean, Nelson said.
As another precaution, the DOE also switched its air system into filtered mode, which means that anything airborne would have been captured within the building's filters.
According to WIPP spokeswoman Susan Scott, management and staff working at WIPP, about 26 miles outside of Carlsbad, are currently in what's called a "safety pause" where they get together and go through the incident and related procedures.
An investigation is ongoing, Nelson said, but all evidence indicates that the puncture to the drum occurred during emplacement, not before or during shipment to WIPP.
"It's not a question of drum integrity," Nelson said. "It's basically an accident during waste emplacement operations."
Officials are also going to have to determine what to do about the drum. It can likely either be patched or placed into a larger "overpack" container.
"The permit allows us to patch or overpack, but we prefer to patch it in place," Nelson said.
Shipments to WIPP have been halted, pending handling of the incident.
It is the first time WIPP officials have noticed a drum that has been punctured, Nelson said.
[Update: See WIPP Drum's Puncture Fixed, and WIPP employees place gashed drum in 'overpack' container]