Why didn’t we hear about the nuclear explosion in the United States on February 14, 2014? Why is it being billed as “dodging a bullet”? Are nuclear waste materials so common that we are not surprised when there is an explosion at our most sensitive government storage site?
While most people are familiar with the years of controversy about our Yucca Mountain nuclear storage plans in Nevada, a project ultimately shelved by the U.S., almost no one knows about our one storage facility in use outside of Carlsbad in New Mexico. Carved out of a salt bed some 655 meters (2,148 feet) below the desert, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) houses some 90,000 cubic meters (3,177 million square feet) of low and medium-level nuclear waste from decommissioned nuclear warheads in the U. S. (see the article on Russian/American cooperation on cleaning up nuclear weapons material).
The explosion, which occurred on February 14 involved some two or three barrels of nuclear waste which exploded at the facility releasing a significant amount of nuclear radioactive material into the entire site with some small amount of radioactivity being released into the atmosphere. While no cause has yet been identified, collapsing walls or ceilings at the site have been ruled out. This facility will be closed for at least 18 months.
More troubling than the explosion however are the results of a Department of Energy probe into just what went wrong at the site. An editorial in the May 15, 2014 issue of Nature cited “an atmosphere of complacency”. It cites the report as specifying a “litany of failings, from an insidious continually deregulation of safety standards and cutting of corners to dilapidated safety equipment, and a lax security culture.” WIPP’s response to the accident itself was “delayed and ineffective” according to the Editorial.
For example, only one continuous radiation monitor underground sounded the alert of high radiation levels. All of the other monitors were out of order. This finding is no different than those of the much studied Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan. The Editorial cites the “hubris, overconfidence in safety assumptions, dilution or non-respect of safety standards, a weak security culture and crucially, lack of tough, independent scientific and technical oversight” common to both reviews.
These findings are similar to those found in a review of the chain of command of the air force which found a surprising lack of seriousness in manning U.S. nuclear missile sites. This lack of seriousness led to the removal of several supervising generals responsible for these sites.
Taken together these and other recent reviews show the striking vulnerability this nation is facing in its handing of nuclear materials. Adding insult to injury the government that had planned to expand the WIPP storage site has shelved its plans due to hydraulic fracturing nearby.
The area is rich in oil, gas and minerals. A May 15, 2014 article in Nature magazine states, “This poses the risk that the WIPP repository could be disturbed by future drilling and mining, for example, by the puncture of the high pressure brine reservoirs beneath WIPP.”
These reports highlight the ongoing complacency of a nation that believes its nuclear weapons problems have been dealt with. For years our government and those of the rest of the world have tried to reassure us the problems have gone away. Guess what, they haven’t.
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