Errant drum stops many WIPP shipments
By Kyle Marksteiner
Article Launched: 07/18/2007 09:30:34 PM MDT
CARLSBAD â€” Many shipments of radioactive waste being sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad have been suspended pending an investigation into one waste drum that isn’t supposed to be there.
BWXT, a contractor with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project in Idaho Falls, Idaho, mistakenly shipped a drum that had not been approved, DOE officials said Wednesday.
“They notified us yesterday that they had shipped a drum in error to WIPP that should not have been included in the shipment,” said Kerry Watson, senior tech advisor with the Department of Energy’s Field office in Carlsbad. “They had an operations error. They retrieved the wrong drum from storage.”
The shipment, Watson said, left Idaho on June 23 and arrived in Carlsbad two days later, where it was subsequently placed in the facility’s underground repository.
The drum was over-packed in a standard waste box, Watson said. Waste drums that don’t meet Department of Transportation requirements are packed into such a box so they then meet DOT regulations, Watson said. Because many drums are fairly old, the over-packing process is fairly common.
The incorrect drum was over-packed
together with three other drums that had been properly certified, and the error was not noticed during a subsequent verification process. Employees in Idaho discovered the mistake this week.
“They were doing some work in a storage facility,” Watson said. “They saw a drum that they thought they’d already shipped.”
While the drum in question was not yet ruled as eligible for transportation, Watson said, its contents had been evaluated and identified.
“We know a lot about this drum,” said Dave Moody, manager of the DOE’s field office in Carlsbad. “The fact that it wasn’t certified doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of characterization on it.”
“We’ve notified all of our regulators, and we’re working with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and NMED (New Mexico Environment Department) on a path forward,” Watson said. “We know that the drum that was sent did not pose a risk to the public during the transit to WIPP and is not a danger at WIPP.”
But the DOE, Moody said, now has the burden of proof of convincing the EPA and NMED that leaving the particular drum here will not have any adverse effects.
“If we can adequately demonstrate that, then we can propose to the state and the EPA that it remain in place,” Moody said.
State environmental officials are taking a wait and see attitude.
“We are pleased that WIPP has taken action to suspend shipments and get to the bottom of this, but we are very concerned that DOE officials in Idaho allowed this drum to slip through the cracks,” said Jon Goldstein, NMED Director of Water and Waste Management. “We are assessing the situation and will take appropriate action.”
The drum in question, Moody said, is currently 36 rows back in its panel at the underground waste repository.
“It’s going to be a difficult job to retrieve it,” Moody said. “Can we do it? Yes, and we’re putting a plan together we would implement if it was determined that we have to go retrieve it. But the first approach is to present a preponderance of data to support that there is no harm to humans or the environment (if the drum is simply left underground).”
In the meantime, the DOE has suspended all waste shipments from the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project in Idaho.
“This does not involve shipments from any other states,” Watson said. “We’re working with them (Idaho) to implement preventive actions and prevent reoccurrence.”
WIPP has been receiving between 23 and 25 shipments of contact-handled waste a week, but the bulk of them, between 15 and 17 a week, have recently been coming from the Idaho site. In addition to Idaho, WIPP is also currently receiving contact-handled shipments from Savannah River, Los Alamos and Hanford DOE sites. WIPP also receives remote-handled waste from a different portion of the facility in Idaho Falls, Moody said.
“We suspended the (contact-handled) shipments (from Idaho) until we can go through this to make sure we don’t have a repeat of this type of error,” Watson said. “We take our regulation requirements extremely seriously.”
The DOE has already done a check on other over-packs that have been shipped to WIPP, Watson said.
“We’ve verified that this was an isolated occurrence,” he said.