WIPP collapse initiates mine evacuation

November 5, 2016 GMT

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, has suffered another collapse - this time outside of the closed southern section, prompting an evacuation of workers in the underground facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The fourth collapse this year is the first since early October. According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Energy, workers in the facility heard a loud noise and observed salt dust.

When the indications of the fall were reported, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the entire facility.

WIPP is an underground facility that serves as a repository for transuranic, or TRU, waste. The site accepts waste from nuclear facilities around the U.S., including Los Alomos National Lab in New Mexico, Hanford site in Washington and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The facility has been closed for operations since 2014 after a nuclear materials release and a salt truck fire caused safety concerns. The site is scheduled to reopen by the end of 2016 and begin accepting waste shipments after July 31, 2017. While the cave-ins have prompted concerns about those dates, DOE officials said they are committed to opening the facility safely and on time.

The workers who alerted to the collapse were in an area identified by the press release as “Panel 7.” According to a facility map provided by DOE in a previous release, Panel 7 is outside of the closed-off southern section of the underground plant.

That section contained both the previous nuclear material release and the three other collapses. According to officials and previous DOE releases, those events prompted the closure of the far southern section.

Officials then said the closure would not impact storage volume for future shipments but have not made it clear whether the Panel 7 collapse will impact the waste disposal volume of the facility.

Potential impacts of WIPP issues include programs at Savannah River Site. Aside from other TRU waste, which primarily consists of gloves, rags and other contaminated materials involved in operations, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions plans to send downblended plutonium to WIPP from K-Area.

The capability of K-Area to downblend, or dilute and dispose of, the plutonium is an element in the DOE decision to move away from the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX.

The Energy Department has called the MOX program too expensive to complete, and said the downblending option is cheaper and involves less risk. With continued collapses, that may be in jeopardy.

Sources close to WIPP say the ceiling is naturally meant to cave in around the material, isolating it from the outside world, which was an intentional consideration in the facility development. Sources also said, however, that the premature collapses may be cause for concern.

According to the press release, a team of geotechnical and radiological control personnel went into the facility Friday, along with mine rescue experts. The group was trying to determine the exact location of the fall and the extent of damage.

In the release, Phil Breidenbach, president and project manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, said, “We have a well-trained workforce that responded appropriately to the event.”

He added that no one was injured and details will be released after the re-entry team gets to Panel 7 and assesses the rock fall.