Federal experts blamed shoddy precautions and administrative practices for a leak at a New Mexico nuclear-waste site, the Associated Press reports.
A “degradation of key safety management and safety culture” was central to the Feb. 14 contamination breach at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, said Ted Wyka, head of the Energy Department Accident Investigation Board. He discussed panel findings that were scheduled for publication on Thursday.
“The bottom line is they failed to believe initial indications of the release,” Wyka said.
The site’s subterranean tunnels have remained off-limits to most personnel following the incident, which took place days after an unrelated vehicle fire. An advance crew on Wednesday re-entered a storage area where escaped radioactive material had been located last week, but the group did not find any indication that a ceiling had fallen or a waste barrel had ruptured.
Personnel took more than 10 hours to react to the initial alert in February, and a ventilation mechanism allowed unfiltered air to pass out of the facility, according to the Energy Department assessment. Investigators faulted follow-up actions by the department, as well as the site’s emergency preparedness, repair schedule, and a lack of plans for placing contamination sensors.
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Chairman Peter Winokur said 100 times more radiation might have drifted above ground had workers not reactivated a warning system disabled for roughly six days after the fire, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
An Energy Department spokeswoman said the agency “is assessing all aspects” of the fire and leak, and anticipates “some significant changes.”
Bob McQuinn, head of the contract firm Nuclear Waste Partnership, acknowledged faults in the response mounted by the facility’s operator, AP reported. He affirmed that reforms being made in administrative procedures, personnel preparations and other activities would “assure that every hazard that is posed by WIPP is examined.”