Investigator: Atomic Site Fire Was ‘Preventable’

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Global Security Newswire Staff
March 14, 2014, 10:29 a.m.

A new fed­er­al as­sess­ment links nu­mer­ous avoid­able er­rors to a fire last month at an atom­ic-waste buri­al site in New Mex­ico, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ports.

The Feb. 5 con­flag­ra­tion at the Waste Isol­a­tion Pi­lot Plant took place in­side a vehicle that was nearly three dec­ades old, in­ad­equately ser­viced and in need of a func­tion­ing alarm sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to the find­ings due for pub­lic­a­tion on Fri­day. Short­com­ings in crisis pro­ced­ures and pre­par­at­ory ef­forts were also ex­pec­ted to be ad­dressed in the forth­com­ing ana­lys­is.

“It was pre­vent­able,” Ted Wyka, the En­ergy De­part­ment head of the probe, said of last month’s fire. It burned for roughly half an hour be­fore the salt-trans­port vehicle’s op­er­at­or no­ticed flames rising from the en­gine area and un­suc­cess­fully sought to douse them, he said.

The of­fi­cial ad­ded that alarm lights at the site took five minutes to be­gin blink­ing, and the re­ac­tion from cent­ral-con­trol work­ers was un­sat­is­fact­ory. Six of the fa­cil­ity’s 86 on-duty per­son­nel re­ceived med­ic­al care for in­hal­ing smoke, AP re­por­ted.

“We were pretty lucky that day,” Wyka said at a pub­lic gath­er­ing on Thursday. “Des­pite all the safety sys­tems that sort of let them down, the work­force down in the mine that day was very calm, col­lec­ted and in many ways hero­ic.”

He de­scribed the fire as­sess­ment shortly after URS, the waste site’s con­tract op­er­at­or, said it had re­as­signed the pres­id­ent of its WIPP sub­si­di­ary to a lower-rank­ing post.

In that per­son­nel change, Farok Sharif — who also pre­vi­ously headed the Nuc­le­ar Waste Part­ner­ship — is now ex­pec­ted to help find short-term des­tin­a­tions for nuc­le­ar waste slated for buri­al at the site, AP re­por­ted sep­ar­ately. Bob Mc­Quinn, a 35-year vet­er­an with ex­per­i­ence in high-risk En­ergy De­part­ment nuc­le­ar-com­plex pro­grams, will re­place Sharif.

Un­der­ground por­tions of the com­plex have been off-lim­its since a Feb. 14 ra­dio­act­ive-ma­ter­i­al leak that was ap­par­ently un­re­lated to the vehicle fire.

“We are com­mit­ted to re­turn­ing WIPP to safe, com­pli­ant op­er­a­tions,” James Taylor, head of URS glob­al op­er­a­tions, said in writ­ten com­ments. “I am con­fid­ent these struc­tur­al re­align­ments will strengthen our re­cov­ery ef­forts.”

Of­fi­cials are set in sev­er­al weeks to is­sue sep­ar­ate find­ings on the ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ent, which spread con­tam­in­a­tion to 17 per­son­nel.

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