‘Container fire’ at WIPP may have resulted from ‘spontaneous combustion’ — Expert: “Could’ve crapped up a whole lot of real estate down there” — U.S. radioactive waste disposal system crippled? — Potential radiological consequences for public, City of Carlsbad “affected greater than any other section”

Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Paul Martin

March 8th, 2014

Albuquerque Journal, Mar. 8, 2014: WIPP radiation leak was never supposed to happen — No one knows yet how or why a waste drum leaked […] setting off a cascade of events that could cripple the nation’s radioactive waste disposal system. […] before WIPP opened, the [DOE] put the risk of such an accident at one chance in 10,000 to one in 1 million during any given year of WIPP operations […] only two possible scenarios […] an exploding waste drum or a waste disposal room roof collapse. […] “You could have crapped up a whole lot of real estate down there,” [Bob Neill, a radiation safety expert] said. The underground drum fire scenario […] hypothesized the “spontaneous combustion” of a drum’s contents, rupturing and spreading the radioactive waste inside [a] one chance in 10,000 in any given year of WIPP operations. The “roof fall” scenario […] was calculated at one chance in a million during a given year [and] could leave a large number of waste drums crushed and leaking. […] Cleaning up contamination [would] risk of further spreading the contamination. […] In a formal legal notice, the New Mexico Environment Department said, “It is believed … that the WIPP will be unable to resume normal activities for a protracted period of time.”

Albuquerque Journal, Mar. 8, 2014: Because no workers were believed to be present at the time of the Valentine’s Day leak, only two scenarios here are plausible based on what we currently know – the burst drum or roof fall.

Department of Energy, WIPP Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (pdf): WIPP Disposal Accidents– Eight potential accidents at WIPP during disposal operations were evaluated; they are shown in Table 5-18. […] Potential radiological consequences to the public and maximally exposed noninvolved worker are substantially higher than hazardous chemical consequences, which are very small for most accident cases. Estimated results for members of the public, the maximally exposed noninvolved worker, and the maximally exposed involved worker are presented below and in Table 5-19. Public Population consequences from WIPP disposal accidents were estimated for the 22.5 degree sector west of the site, which includes the City of Carlsbad. The population in this sector is 25,629 and would be affected greater than any other section in the surrounding 80-kilometer (50-mile) region.

Container Fire — Contents of a drum in an underground disposal room spontaneously combusts prior to panel closure.
Roof Fall — A portion of a disposal room roof falls prior to panel closure, crushing drums and causing container breaches.

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