Alibi V.24 No.18 • April 30-May 6, 2015 


Watching the Watchmen

On the origins of a radioactive leak at WIPP

Robert Maestas
Last year on Valentine's Day, many nuevomexicano hearts were skipping a beat. Among those with racing pulses were the staff and management at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and their overseers at the US Department of Energy. That was the day Drum 68660 popped.

On Sept. 7, 2012, a chemist employed by EnergySolutions, LLC ordered “an organic” kitty litter, Swheat Scoop, to pack barrels containing transuranic waste. It's fun to imagine that a cult-like devotion to purchasing free-range, antibiotic and pesticide-free goods led to this nuclear storage debacle. But it was actually poor note-taking that presaged the leak. Well, that and the lack of oversight to circumvent and protect the storage of nuclear waste from such human error. WIPP has been closed for over a year now, and all other drums packed with “an organic,” wheat-based litter—as opposed to the more traditional, stabilizing choice of an “inorganic,” clay-based one—still pose a threat and are being stored either underground at WIPP or separately at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In a September 2014 report, the DOE estimates the cost of reopening WIPP at around $242 million.

Working with radioactive substances involves the use of nitrate salts. Drums containing similarly unstable nitrate salts were being remediated at LANL. When nitrate salts dry out, they can ignite. When nitrate salts are mixed with a biological, organic substance—like wheat-based kitty litter—the interaction between the biologic and nitrate salts is a veritable accident waiting to happen. And in this case, it did.

Released on April 16, the National Nuclear Security Administration Accident Investigation Board Phase II report on WIPP cites the root cause of this leak as Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, and the Carlsbad Field Office's “management failure to fully understand, characterize and control the radiological hazard.” In other words, the cause was human error.

In a September 2014 report, the Department of Energy estimates the cost of reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at around $242 million.

The report continues, “The cumulative effect of inadequacies in ventilation system design and operability compounded by degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture resulted in the release of radiological material from the underground to the environment, and the delayed/ineffective recognition and response to the leak.”

The human error factor this incident illustrates always poses a danger; it's even more dangerous when human error happens within systems requiring a fail-safe mentality and design. The DOE's 277-page report on the WIPP incident found that poor management and lapses in safety at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository contributed to the leak.

In other words, the cause of the radioactive leak at WIPP was human error.

In New Mexico atomic literature, the nuclear industry—often personified as LANL—is sometimes analogized as a bad boyfriend who lures you in only to destroy you. As Susan Sontag noted in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” The sci-fi industry has obliged us with representations of radioactive disaster in testing and storage capacities in films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, Monster from Green Hell, Beginning of the End and so on.

Like all art, sci-fi movies represent life. How ironic then that the cause of the latest in a series of nuclear waste storage incidents isn't the work of filmic monsters like the giant, irradiated ants of Them! or even real monsters like terrorist agents bent on destroying the American way of life. It's the result of a sloppy management and safety culture and a handwritten note about “an organic kitty litter.” All systems are vulnerable to human error, and the storage of nuclear waste is one of many that will continue to fall prey to this inescapable fact. If that doesn't scare the hell of you, I don't know what will.