Second rock fall discovered at nuclear waste site

A second rock fall has been discovered at a nuclear waste
facility in New Mexico, the Department of Energy announced today.

The salt rock debris was found Monday during routine
inspections of the underground cavern at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project
(WIPP) near Carlsbad.

Officials say neither this incident, nor another rock fall
discovered Sept. 27, pose a threat. “The rock fall does not cause any threat to
the workforce or the public,” a DOE spokesperson told AMI Newswire.

Both incidents occurred in areas of the facility that have
not been used since 2010.

These incidents mark the first reported rock falls at WIPP
since December 2015. The site – which occupies approximately 16 square miles
and includes disposal rooms 2,150 feet
underground carved out of a 2,000 square foot thick salt formation – has
suffered from more severe problems in the past.

On February 14, 2014, an explosion there resulted in one of
the costliest nuclear accidents in American history. The explosion caused an
estimated $2 billion in damage and exposed 21 workers to radiation. The facility
has remained closed since then.

Don Hancock of Southwest Research and Information Center, a
nonprofit group focused on the environment and social justice, said he worries
about transparency regarding incidents at WIPP:

“When information becomes available is an ongoing issue with
the WIPP facility,” he said. “When the February 2014 accident occurred, initial
statements suggested there had been no radiation release, and it wasn’t five
days later until that information was made available to the public.”

Susan Crockett, a County Commissioner for Eddy County which
includes WIPP, believes DOE is protecting the public. “I don’t think these rock
falls mean increased risks for WIPP,” she said. “The site is safe and stable. The
contractor tries to eliminate such rock falls at WIPP. As with an underground
mine, roof bolts wear out and rust.”

Nevertheless, Crockett said DOE should consider allocating
more money and staff to conduct maintenance efforts at the facility which became
operations in 1999.

A ground team inside WIPP discovered a rock fall near an
exhaust drift at Panel 3 on October 4th. The news comes after rock fall
was also discovered near a bulkhead in Panel 4 on September 27th. Each waste
disposal “panel” is a cavern cut into a natural salt formation. Each panel is
13 feet high, 33 feet wide and 300 feet long. WIPP has eight such panels each
contain seven smaller rooms used for storing radioactive waste. Access to the
site is possible via a slow moving elevator.

Panels 3 and 4 are both in the southern portions of WIPP.
Panel 4 was closed in 2010, and Panel 3 was closed in 2007. There were no
individuals were in the area at the time of either incident, according to the DOE.
A bulging bulkhead discovered in Panel 4 in March 2016 resulted in restricted
access due to safety concerns. In 2014,
a similar restriction was placed on access to Panel 3. The limitations mean
management approval is necessary to access these portions of the facility. The
collapse is believed to be the result of the natural movement of the salt
formations or salt creep. The salt is part of the Salado Formation salt beds
which were formed 225 million years ago.

“It is not surprising that collapses happened, and more
collapses will occur. WIPP is designed with the idea that in the future the
salt will collapse and bury the nuclear material. The salt formations move
about three or four inches a year. That pressure can break the bolts holding
the roof in place.” Hancock said.

 The WIPP facility is the only deep geologic repository
for nuclear waste in the United States.

DOE hopes to reopen WIPP this December.


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