The three editorials/articles published in the Journal the weekend of Feb. 22-27 reflect a serious lack of understanding of the relationship of federal nuclear facilities to the State of New Mexico, a misrepresentation of risk and risk analysis of incidents that fall outside the operational safety envelope of these facilities, and the role that the Department of Energy (DOE) has assumed without adequate or trained personnel to manage the sites under its jurisdiction.
The $57 million fine levied by the state is egregious, inappropriate and reflects an ignorance of authority and precedence unrivaled in my 40 years experience in this field. The State of New Mexico has no authority to levy fines for radioactive releases, accidents or untoward events. Those are regulated under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA, 1954 as amended,) and penalties are administered under the Price Anderson and Amendments Act (PAAA).
This author has been involved in a number of releases from various facilities and the release from WIPP is, by any measure, trivial. The Journal editorial on Feb. 22 says “pay up, we’re the only game in town.” For the past 83 years, New Mexico has hosted the development of a world-class nuclear deterrent that won the Cold War. For that, billions of dollars funding defense, research and first-class science have flooded into the state.
As states like Colorado, Washington and New Mexico secured more regulatory influence over weapons sites in the 1980s and ’90s, relationships between the sites and the states became acrimonious due to a lack of institutional memory by the EPA and agreement states, and the resentment of federal authorities regarding the (in)ability of the states to regulate their radiological (weapons) activities.
New Mexico in particular needs to remember the many benefits of the long association with the laboratories and military bases, as well as its own legal limitations, before deciding on a course such as the one now undertaken. It will be fruitless and will perpetuate long-held adversarial relationships.
Both the state and the DOE suffer from a plethora of operational ignorance. As retirements are encouraged to save money on retirement plans, this ignorance has filtered through the lab population. None of their staff has worked at the labs or operational sites in capacities that expose them to the day-to-day handling of radioactive materials.
On Feb. 26, engineer J. Moore opined about risk and wondered aloud why a drum failure was so much more frequent than predicted in the risk assessment, without realizing that, when the conditions of drum burial are changed, the risk assessment is rendered null and void. There is a process to assess this change, and a modification of the Safety Analysis and Risk Assessment is required; there is no evidence in the public record that LANL carried out this required analysis. Mr. Moore’s comparison to the Space Shuttle is completely inappropriate; when Challenger launched, there were 850 SINGLE POINT FAILURES that would result in loss of mission and crew. NO civilian program, including waste disposal, would tolerate that level of risk.
As noted in the Feb. 27 editorial, the DOE makes up for its lack of experience by micromanagement. This paralyzes operations and inflates restart costs to $500 million or more. This is ridiculous and I will tell you what needs to happen.
LANL waste operations and WIPP disposal need to be restarted in 90 days. The drum in question needs to be exhumed, opened, examined and a root cause analysis performed. The repackaging of 5,500 drums hangs in the balance. In spite of the increased drum weight, inorganic clay needs to be used as drum filler. The safety analysis needs to be updated to reflect the results of the analysis of the drum and the operational deficiencies that led to the incident.
I will be happy to lead this effort myself, and I lead from the front; I will be in the mine, I will be at LANL and I will assure operations are compliant with the original permit. I served as the Waste Certification Official (WCO) when LANL was permitted to ship the first waste to WIPP. This is not an insurmountable task – and certainly not $500 million out of the taxpayer’s pocket.
Editor’s note: Richard Stupka is a retired scientist and safety and radiological professional.