What happened at WIPP in February 2014

Burned Truck
alt hauling truck after the fire

Two isolated events took place at WIPP in February. On February 5, a salt haul truck caught fire.  Workers were evacuated and the underground portion of WIPP was shut down.  Several workers were treated for smoke inhalation, but no injuries occurred.

Nine days later, late in the evening of February 14, a second unrelated event occurred when a continuous air monitor (CAM) alarmed during the night shift, when only 11 employees were at the WIPP site on the surface, no employees were in the underground.  Two other WIPP employees reported to the site a couple hours later. The continuous air monitor measured airborne radioactivity close to the operating location where waste was being emplaced.  Ventilation air is pulled from the underground repository by huge fans on the surface.  This exhaust consists of unfiltered clean air. 


WIPP underground cutaway

When the CAM alarmed, two dampers were automatically closed in the exhaust duct that redirected the exhaust through high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that removes radioactive particles.

The next day an aboveground exhaust air monitor on the WIPP site detected very low levels of airborne radioactive contamination.  The 140 employees at the site were kept indoors as a precaution while air samples were taken.  The 13 employees present during the radioactive release event on February 14 were tested for internal radioactive contamination after the event. The 140 employees have also been offered testing.

It is believed that a small amount of radioactivity leaked by the exhaust-duct dampers, through the unfiltered exhaust ducts and escaped aboveground.  The exhaust duct dampers are large “butterfly” valves that are designed to close and cut off the air flow through the exhausters.  However, the valves do not fully seal the exhaust ducts and still allowed a small amount of unfiltered air to escape.

The dampers have since been sealed with high-density expanding foam insulation.  Remote monitors lowered down the Air Intake Shaft and Salt Shaft into the underground repository have not detected airborne radioactivity.  Plans and preparations are being made for a manned entry into the underground repository.

Onsite Underground Ventilation Sampling Results PDF Image
Radiological Modeling Results PDF Image

WIPP ventilation system


Accident Investigation board Reports

As a result of the February 5 incident, when a salt haul truck caught fire in the underground portion of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) established an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) to assess the WIPP safety systems programs and processes at the federal and contractor level. This investigation included analysis of training and qualifications, maintenance and emergency management response to the incident.

The DOE AIB uses a rigorous process to investigate events that had or potentially could have had a negative impact to the employees, public or the environment.  The DOE Carlsbad Field Office and its contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, made every aspect of WIPP operations available to the investigation team. 

The fire was a serious event that posed a threat to workers deep underground. In this case, the fire resulted in minor smoke inhalation to six workers, but it did not impact the public or the environment. There is no indication the fire was related to the February 14radiological release.

The AIB report details a significant number of Judgments of Needs (JON) that will form the basis for corrective actions designed to prevent the recurrence of such an event.

Also included in the report is a Summary of Positive Observations, which included prompt employee actions that prevented injuries.

DOE Headquarters, the Carlsbad Field Office and Nuclear Waste Partnership are working together to develop and implement corrective actions.

The AIB report on the haul-truck fire was released March 7. To view the report, click on the following link.


The DOE AIB also conducted an investigation of the February 14 radiological event at WIPP. Their report is being issued in two phases. Phase I focuses on the release of radioactive material from the underground to the environment and the follow-on response to the release. The Phase I AIB Report was released April 24. To view the report, click on the following link.


The Phase 2 report will be focused on determining the direct cause of the release of the material. A release date is yet to be determined.

Media Contact for Recovery

Tim Runyon
U.S. Department of Energy
WIPP Recovery Communications
P.O. Box 3090
Carlsbad, NM 88221-2078 
Phone: (575) 234-7545
E-mail: Tim.Runyon@cbfo.doe.gov

Donavan Mager
Manager Communications
Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC
P.O. Box 2078 GSA-104
Carlsbad, NM 88221-2078
Phone: (575) 234-7586
E-mail: Donavan.Mager@wipp.ws