ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Federal investigators have uncovered a series of shortcomings in safety training, emergency response and oversight at the troubled southeastern New Mexico nuclear waste dump where a truck caught fire and 17 workers were recently contaminated by a radiation leak.
A report released Friday on the investigation into the first of back-to-back accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad says a Feb. 5 truck blaze apparently was ignited by a buildup of oil and other combustible materials that should have been regularly cleaned off the vehicle. The truck also was operating without an automatic fire suppression system, the Department of Energy report said. And one of several mistakes made in the chaotic moments that followed switched the filtration systems in the mine a half-mile underground and sent smoke billowing into areas where workers expected to have "good air."
The report also identified problems with safety culture at the federal government's only permanent repository for waste from the nation's nuclear bomb-building facilities, and it said a series of repeat deficiencies identified by an independent oversight board had gone unresolved.
New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich called the report "deeply concerning."
"Fortunately, no one was hurt," the Democrats said in a joint statement. "The community of Carlsbad and the nation expect WIPP to operate with the highest level of safety. The board has identified a number of serious safety concerns that will need to be fully addressed. We believe all levels of management at the Department of Energy and at WIPP must take the recommendations from the board very seriously and fully implement them. "
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican whose district includes the plant, applauded the DOE for a transparent report that highlights "the sloppy procedures that caused the fire."
An investigation of a radiation release nine days later that contaminated 17 workers and sent toxic particles into the air around the plant is expected to be complete in a few weeks. At this point, officials say they are unsure if the fire and the radiation release are related. The mine has been shuttered since the Feb. 14 release, but investigators hope to be able to get below next week to see what happened.
The accidents are the first major incidents at the repository, which began taking radioactive waste 15 years ago.
Just hours before the report on the truck fire was previewed at a community meeting Thursday evening, the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant demoted the facility's president.
At the community meeting, the DOE official who led the investigative team, Ted Wyka, said the fire probably started about 30 minutes before the driver saw the orange glow from the engine compartment and tried to put it out. But the automatic fire-suppression system that might have detected the heat earlier was not active, Wyka said, and the systems activated by the driver sprayed didn't work.
Wyka praised the 86 workers who were underground when the fire started around 11 a.m. on Feb. 5 for their response. But he said a number of systems failed. For example, he said emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes, not all workers heard the evacuation announcement and workers had trouble using their emergency air canisters. One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration made, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.
Six workers were treated for smoke inhalation after the fire.
"We were pretty lucky that day," he said. "... 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."
Wyka said the workers "did everything they could" to notify colleagues to get out, even before the evacuation alarm sounded. "Some stayed behind to make sure everyone got in the elevator to get out."
The biggest lesson, he said, is about the mindset at the site.
"This is not just a mine, not just an operating nuclear facility - this is both," Wyka said, noting that trucks used in the part of the mine where waste is hauled are kept much cleaner than the old trucks used to haul salt a half mile underground, where massive waste storage rooms are being dug a half mile in the 2,000-foot thick ancient Permian Sea bed. They also have active fire-suppression systems. The truck that caught fire hauling salt for removal from the mine.
Joe Franco, who runs the Department of Energy's site office at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, choked up as he addressed the meeting, telling the community that at first, he took the findings personally.
"It's one of those things, being part of the family, one of those things that's a little tough," he said. "But I think what's important (is) we definitely got away with not ... having anyone seriously hurt. So we need to learn from that. It is what I wanted to hear, and I wanted the truth. We don't need any sugar-coating."