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10/10/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 10/10/2019 16:54

Ventilation Creates Challenges for Workers at Underground Nuclear Waste Repository

Oct 10, 2019

Members of Local 12-9477 who work at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) perform a great service to our nation at the risk of their health and safety.

This risk may be heightened by a flawed ventilation system, according to the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent group that gives advice to the president and Secretary of Energy on public safety issues at DOE defense nuclear facilities.

Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, N.M., WIPP sits atop a 250-million-year-old salt formation. Workers mine the salt to create a long-term storage site for radioactive waste, the only such underground repository for radioactive materials in the United States.

These photos show how transuranic waste is handled and deposited underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Photo: Mike Hancock, USW Local 9-562 retiree

While the site did not have problems for the first 15 years of its existence after it opened in 1999, two isolated incidents - a fire and a radiological release, which occurred within nine days of each other in February 2014 - prompted a rebuild of the ventilation system, and have caused lingering concerns about air quality.

Above ground, workers inspect drums of transuranic (TRU) waste including clothing, tools, rags, residues, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. Below ground, they dig out salt, do ground control and place the waste drums and boxes into active disposal rooms.

(L-R): Chris Carrasco, Local 12-9477 member, and Rick Fuentes, Local 12-9477 president, stand in front of the WIPP mine rescue team trailer. Photo: Mike Hancock, USW Local 9-562 retiree

The new ventilation system is supposed to provide enough air in the underground salt mine to allow for mining, waste emplacement and ground-control activities to occur at the same time, but the federal oversight board says a design flaw could cause another radiation release to occur.

Design flaw

Known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS), the new system would provide 540,000 cubic feet per minute of air to underground workers. A major portion of the SSCVS is expected to be built by 2020.

The agency also awarded a contract for the construction of a utility shaft that is considered essential to the project. WIPP's contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, said that construction will begin by the end of 2019. Two tunnels will be mined to connect the shaft to the rest of the underground. DOE also added six 20-foot-tall fans to the rebuilt ventilation system that would provide 75 percent more power than the existing fans.

The entire system is expected to be completed by 2021-2022. However, a federal nuclear watchdog has discovered a design flaw in the system.

In 2018, the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said there was a flaw in the SSCVS, which could lead to a release of radioactivity. It followed up with a letter of its concerns to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Aug. 27, 2019.

The board said the final design of the SSCVS did not 'adequately consider design requirements for the underground safety significant continuous air monitoring (CAM) system.' DOE considered the SSCVS an above-ground project unrelated to the WIPP underground. Yet, both systems must work together to avert a radiological release.

Also, it takes 60 seconds for the ventilation dampers to close if there is a radiological release, and the board staff's independent analysis showed this closure time may be inadequate to prevent a radiological release from contaminating the salt-reduction system and
WIPP's entire operations.

Plus, inadequate performance of the CAM alert system could lead to a release as well.

The board requested in its letter to Secretary Perry that it receive a written response to its concerns followed by a DOE briefing within 90 days (by Nov. 27, 2019) that would outline the agency's plans to address the design problems.

Workers get sick

Even as they wait for the new ventilation system to come fully online, members of Local 12-9477 have reported problems with air quality and flow.

After three years of cleanup costing $500 million, DOE reopened WIPP on Jan. 9, 2017, with reduced operations and airflow underground. Four months later, the facility received its first shipment in three years.

LU 12-9477 members returned to their regular jobs handling the TRU waste above and below ground, mining in the underground and conducting ground control. However, ventilation underground was a problem. WIPP operated at a reduced rate and with filtered airflow because of the Feb. 14 radiation release. The filter lessened the amount of air underground.

WIPP's current filter building with HEPA filters. Photo: Mike Hancock, retired USW Local 9-562 member

At the fall meeting of the USW Atomic Energy Workers Council (AEWC) in 2018, Local 12-9477 President Rick Fuentes said workers were being exposed to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and diesel particulates from limited ventilation in the underground.

'We need more air,' Fuentes said. 'We should be mining, bolting, and downloading waste, but due to the limited ventilation in the underground, this isn't possible.'

Above ground is the contact-handled (CH) bay, where CH transuranic waste is processed. This type of transuranic waste has a surface dose rate not greater than 200 millirems per hour. Fuentes said the workers in the CH bay were exposed to high levels of carbon tetrachloride. In some cases, their exposure exceeded the IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) level, and workers experienced side effects from these exposures.

Fuentes filed a formal stop work order. His action prompted changes within the CH bay, and workers now wear a photoionization detector (PID) which monitors for VOCs and their personal breathing space at all times when they are processing the transuranic waste.

A self-contained self-rescuerthat employees bring with them when they work underground emplacing nuclear waste. Photo: Mike Hancock, retired USW Local 9-562 member

These illnesses prompted DOE's Office of Enterprise Assessments to file a notice on Jan. 29, 2019, of its intent to investigate Nuclear Waste Partnership.

Temporary Improvement

Fuentes said that workers are no longer getting sick from excessive heat, noxious fumes and exposure to chemical hazards. He said that Nuclear Waste Partnership is attempting to keep workers from breathing in diesel particulate matter in the underground by having them carry MX4 and ToxiRae carbon monoxide monitors. If the alarm goes off in these instruments, work stops until the ventilation problem can be corrected.

He said that the contractor is also looking to start up one of the 700 Series fans, which have not operated since the 2014 radiation release.

'If we can get both 700 Series fans up and running, this would significantly increase ventilation to 425,000 cubic feet per minute, and it would reduce the risk of exposure to workers from the fumes of diesel equipment operating underground,' Fuentes said. 'Plus, it would allow us to operate more equipment at one time, like we used to prior to the 2014 events.'