Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Workers Confront Safety Concerns

Local 12-9477 is pushing for greater safety protections after two health and safety incidents in recent months at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located east of Carlsbad, N.M.

On April 9, officials suspended waste shipments from Idaho National Laboratory (INL) after liquid at the bottom of a drum of transuranic waste from INL tested positive for radioactive contamination.

Transuranic waste consists of irradiated items like clothes and equipment as a result of nuclear activities at Department of Energy (DOE) sites across the country.

USW waste handlers and radiation control technicians preparing waste drums to be emplaced in the underground salt repository acted quickly to alert management.

“The way our workers handled the drum went well,” said Local 12-9477 President Jonathan Fuentes. “When they were observing the barrel, they noticed the fluid and went through the procedure to check that out. They had to decontaminate the area and contact-handle waste bay for extra caution.”

The waste handlers and radiation control technicians evacuated the waste handling building and were tested, along with the air in the facility, for radioactive contamination.

WIPP officials said no radioactive contamination was found on the workers or in the air and that no radiation was released outside the site.

“So far, nobody has been sick,” Fuentes said. “We’re in the process of investigating why the incident happened to see if we have to make changes to better protect our members.”

This is the second time that WIPP received a problematic drum of waste. In 2014, an incorrectly-packaged drum shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured, released radiation and caused the plant to suspend emplacement and mining activities for three years.

Air flow

In February, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board also reported that the prime contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), continued having difficulties with three continuous air monitors in the underground salt repository due to corrosion and salt build-up in the vacuum pump filter.

If there is a radiation release, these monitors signal to an operator to shut down the unfiltered, 700-C fan so workers and the public aren’t exposed to radiation.

NWP responded by changing the filters in the faulty monitors, but Fuentes said the local is demanding all the old filters be replaced to ensure workers’ health and safety.

“Patchwork solutions don’t work,” he said. “Our members deserve to know that the devices that are supposed to warn of radioactive releases work.”

Photo credit: Mike Hancock, Retired LU 9-562

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