Frequently Asked Questions

What caused the fire and the radiation release events?

The federal accident investigation board who reviewed the underground salt haul truck fire at WIPP attributed the cause of the fire to buildup of combustible fluids on the truck that came into contact with hot surfaces.  <Click here to view the report>

The accident investigation board’s initial investigation into the February 14 radiological event focused on the reaction to the radioactive material release, including related exposure to above-ground workers and the response actions.  <Click here to view the report>

After the source of the radiological event is determined, the accident investigation board will release a supplemental report focused on the direct cause of the release and worker protection measures in the underground facility. 

The report stated the direct cause of the release was the breach of at least one transuranic waste container in the underground facility which resulted in airborne radioactivity escaping to the environment downstream of the high-efficiency particulate air filters.  The Board identified the root cause to be a failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard among management at WIPP, the operating contractor, and the Carlsbad Field Office.

What is being done to prevent a reoccurrence of these events?

As the result of these events, the WIPP repository is not accepting any waste shipments at this time.  WIPP is developing a recovery plan, one of many steps and processes that need to be completed before the facility can safely return to full operations.  The accident investigation board reports identified a number of judgments of need, and the Department is currently developing formal corrective action plans.  WIPP, with the assistance of nuclear experts from around the country, is identifying all hazards associated with operations and implementing controls to prevent the recurrence of recent events.       

How long will WIPP be closed to waste shipments? When will WIPP reopen?

Until the source of the February 14 event is isolated and mitigated, it is premature to say when shipments can resume.  WIPP will reopen only when it is safe to do so.  The Department is committed to planning and implementing the required recovery actions and corrective actions to enable a resumption of operations as quickly as can safely be achieved.    Site safety basis documents, which require us to identify and mitigate all hazards associated with WIPP operations, also are being evaluated and revised.

Was anyone injured or harmed by either of these events?

Six WIPP personnel were evaluated for smoke inhalation and released from a local hospital the day of the underground fire. One employee continues to be treated for smoke inhalation as a result of the fire.  

There were no injuries related to the February 14 radiological release from WIPP.  Bioassay tests showed that 22 workers received internal contamination as a result of the release, with a total exposure less than 10 millirem each, which is equivalent to the exposure you would expect from a chest x-ray.  All follow-up tests were below minimum detectable concentrations.  No long-term adverse health effects are expected for these employees.

Are WIPP employees still working while the repository is closed, and if so, what are they doing?

WIPP crews who normally work in the underground facility are performing surface facilities maintenance or assisting with procedure reviews and revisions, retraining and recovery activities.  On return to work in the underground facility, their priorities will be maintenance of equipment and ground control systems.  The WIPP crew is also involved in the entries into the underground facility to determine the root cause of the event and evaluate mine conditions.  WIPP’s skilled workforce is critical to recovery activities and resumption of disposal operations. 

What is taking DOE so long to determine the cause of the radiological release event?

WIPP is committed to protecting personnel while they are in the underground facility collecting and analyzing evidence, which requires a careful, methodical approach.  Panel 7 presented an unknown and contaminated environment for recovery teams.  Entering the area for investigative purposes requires a detailed plan that describes the work scope, how the work is to be performed, and the equipment that will be used.  Recovery teams perform mock-ups to demonstrate proficiency and safety.  Air respirators also limit the team’s time underground. Photographs and samples taken during entries must also be analyzed to plan subsequent entries.

How much will it cost DOE to recover from these two events?

It is premature to estimate the total cost for recovery and restart of disposal operations at WIPP until DOE determines the source of the radiological release and completes detailed planning.

Will DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership abide by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s recommendations to upgrade WIPP’s safety basis and engineered safety features and conduct a formal Operational Readiness Review prior to operation? 

The WIPP Safety Basis, also called the Documented Safety Analysis, is being revised to analyze and address all nuclear safety issues.  A formal operational readiness review is included in the Recovery Plan that will be conducted prior to returning to full operations.

Are Idaho or Savannah River taking actions similar to Los Alamos related to any of the waste streams remaining at those sites?

Savannah River and Idaho do not have any of the waste streams of concern. Based on the outcome of the investigation, we will apply any needed corrective actions at other waste generator sites.

How much plutonium is in Panel 7? 

There are approximately 700 curies of plutonium in Panel 7.

What is the design pressure for the LANL type barrels?

The 55-gallon drums have a working limit design pressure of approximately 30 pounds per square inch.

Have you inspected the 51 barrels of surplus non-pit weapons grade plutonium from Savannah River that are stored in panel 7 room 7, what is their condition? What is their proximity to the Los Alamos containers that are currently suspect?

Video and photographs taken to date do not indicate issues with the surplus plutonium oxide containers. The surplus plutonium oxides do not contain americium, which is the predominant isotope found on the filter papers from the February 14 event. The closest of those containers is two rows from the suspect containers.

DOE Order 5481.1B requires significant modification to the WIPP Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR) if there is an increase risk from a new hazard, such as the incident. Will the FSAR be modified for DOE or WIPP?

The WIPP Documented Safety Analysis is being updated to incorporate facility modifications and new information learned from the events.

An ignition source due to an electrostatic discharge in a container is a credible event and even if vented gases came from within the containers, are the containers grounded in Panel 7 to prevent this?

The containers are not grounded. Containers are not moved once they are placed in the underground. However, the salt environment in the disposal rooms would dissipate any electrostatic charge, but there is no movement that could result in an electrostatic charge build-up.

If a worker performing the filter change-out has concerns about the process or their exposure, to whom can they discuss their concerns?

They are encouraged to discuss any concerns with their supervisor and the radiological control manager.

As the job continues, can anyone issue a stop work order if there is a problem or question?

All personnel have the right to stop work for safety concerns or pause the job to have questions addressed.

Is WIPP designing a new ventilation system?

A new ventilation system is being designed for WIPP’s long term operation. WIPP is also implementing interim ventilation system modifications to support recovery activities.

Do you feel that the ventilation systems were properly designed for a 'radiological' event?

The ventilation system worked as designed during the radiological release, but improvements are needed for the future. The existing ventilation system will be modified to include additional filter units and increased air flow capacity to support operation of underground equipment. A supplemental ventilation system will be designed and installed to provide even more air flow to support interim operations. Finally, a new permanent ventilation system will be designed and built for long term operations.

Closing the panels seems dangerous; will the workers performing this work be assigned on a volunteer basis?

There will be detailed work plans developed for panel closure that will include mitigating controls of all identified hazards to protect workers. Workers are involved in the planning process and are essential in the development of hazard controls. Personnel will be assigned to the planning process and panel closure activities based on their training, qualifications and experience.  

Where are all of the waste containers that were not accepted by WIPP? How many are there with the organic material mix in them?

When employees identify a waste container does not meet the WIPP’s waste acceptance criteria, it is set aside at the generator site for repackaging or remediation. There are currently 116 containers at Waste Control Specialists, 55 containers in Panel 7 of Room 7, and 313 in Panel 6 with the organic material mix in them.

Why were workers at the WIPP on the night of Feb. 14, especially since WIPP was closed from the truck fire? What were they doing?

Shift crews perform safety, security, and permit-related inspections around the clock. Employees perform most of these activities on the surface, and it does not require entry into the mine.

Is there a decontamination process for the HEPA duct system?

We will decontaminate areas of the HEPA duct system as needed. Based on the radiological surveys, contamination will be removed or fixed in place.

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

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

Public Inquiries

WIPP Information Center
Phone: 1-800-336-WIPP (9477)