Scientists still don't know what caused nuclear waste explosion at WIPP storage facility

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(NaturalNews) Nearly five months later, scientists still do not know what caused the Valentine's Day explosion of a barrel of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

WIPP was intended to be the only permanent storage facility for materials contaminated as part of the nation's nuclear weapons programs. Material stored in the underground mine include plutonium-contaminated gloves, clothing and tools.

On February 5, a truck caught fire in the mine, leading the facility to be temporarily shut down. Nine days later, one of the barrels in storage burst, ejecting radioactive material out of the mine onto the surface and exposing 22 workers to radiation. Now, WIPP may not be reopened for up to three years, leaving large amounts of nuclear waste nationwide "stranded," with no official final storage site.

Safety procedures not followed

In a letter released on July 3, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (which manages WIPP) admitted to the New Mexico Environment Department that an internal investigation had revealed several violations of the facility's Hazardous Waste Facility Permit. For example, the lab admitted that it did not follow proper procedure when making the switch between different types of cat litter (which is added to the waste drums to absorb moisture). The investigation also found that the lab did not follow up after tests showed that certain waste drums were highly acidic.

Some researchers suspect that the new cat litter, the acidic waste and lead might all have contributed to a chemical reaction that produced the explosion. However, neither state nor federal investigators have been able to prove this hypothesis. They have performed literally hundreds of attempts to re-create the explosion with test containers, but all have failed.

In an editorial published in La Jicarita on June 25, Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center criticizes the government's failure to explain the Valentine's Day accident, quantify its health or environmental impacts, or explain how to prevent future accidents. Hancock notes that it is still unclear whether other containers inside WIPP might be leaking, and that the breached container has yet to be physically examined. Nearly none of the underground tunnels through which radioactive material was expelled have been tested.

Independent investigation needed

Hancock notes that, without an explanation of the accident, it is impossible to prevent repeat occurrences -- at WIPP or at other nuclear wastes storage facilities, many of which store similar containers to the one that ruptured. He also questions whether federal and state officials can be trusted to be honest in their investigations.

"What happened at WIPP was never supposed to occur; allowing DOE [the Department of Energy] to investigate itself and NWP [Nuclear Waste Partnership] to operate WIPP with increased funding will not determine what happened and what needs to happen in the future," he wrote. "Nor should the public have confidence in what DOE and NWP decide, because of their inherent bias and desire for more money."

Hancock calls for an independent investigation to determine what caused the leak, how much radioactive material leaked underground and on the surface, what happened to the toxic waste that was expelled, how much decontamination is necessary underground or on the surface, how much radiation workers were exposed to and what the health consequences are likely to be, and what changes should be implemented if WIPP is reopened.

"That investigation is necessary to understand what's wrong with WIPP and to inform the needed public discussion about what happens in the future with that facility and with nuclear weapons waste that is stored at Los Alamos, Washington, Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee," he wrote.

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