Second rock fall discovered at nuclear waste site

A second rock fall has been discovered at a nuclear waste facility in New Mexico, the Department of Energy announced today.

The salt rock debris was found Monday during routine inspections of the underground cavern at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad.

Officials say neither this incident, nor another rock fall discovered Sept. 27, pose a threat. “The rock fall does not cause any threat to the workforce or the public,” a DOE spokesperson told AMI Newswire.

Both incidents occurred in areas of the facility that have not been used since 2010.

These incidents mark the first reported rock falls at WIPP since December 2015. The site – which occupies approximately 16 square miles and includes disposal rooms 2,150 feet underground carved out of a 2,000 square foot thick salt formation - has suffered from more severe problems in the past.

On February 14, 2014, an explosion there resulted in one of the costliest nuclear accidents in American history. The explosion caused an estimated $2 billion in damage and exposed 21 workers to radiation. The facility has remained closed since then.

Don Hancock of Southwest Research and Information Center, a nonprofit group focused on the environment and social justice, said he worries about transparency regarding incidents at WIPP:

“When information becomes available is an ongoing issue with the WIPP facility,” he said. “When the February 2014 accident occurred, initial statements suggested there had been no radiation release, and it wasn’t five days later until that information was made available to the public.”

Susan Crockett, a County Commissioner for Eddy County which includes WIPP, believes DOE is protecting the public. “I don’t think these rock falls mean increased risks for WIPP,” she said. “The site is safe and stable. The contractor tries to eliminate such rock falls at WIPP. As with an underground mine, roof bolts wear out and rust.”

Nevertheless, Crockett said DOE should consider allocating more money and staff to conduct maintenance efforts at the facility which became operations in 1999.

A ground team inside WIPP discovered a rock fall near an exhaust drift at Panel 3 on October 4th. The news comes after rock fall was also discovered near a bulkhead in Panel 4 on September 27th. Each waste disposal “panel” is a cavern cut into a natural salt formation. Each panel is 13 feet high, 33 feet wide and 300 feet long. WIPP has eight such panels each contain seven smaller rooms used for storing radioactive waste. Access to the site is possible via a slow moving elevator.

Panels 3 and 4 are both in the southern portions of WIPP. Panel 4 was closed in 2010, and Panel 3 was closed in 2007. There were no individuals were in the area at the time of either incident, according to the DOE. A bulging bulkhead discovered in Panel 4 in March 2016 resulted in restricted access due to safety concerns. In 2014, a similar restriction was placed on access to Panel 3. The limitations mean management approval is necessary to access these portions of the facility. The collapse is believed to be the result of the natural movement of the salt formations or salt creep. The salt is part of the Salado Formation salt beds which were formed 225 million years ago.

“It is not surprising that collapses happened, and more collapses will occur. WIPP is designed with the idea that in the future the salt will collapse and bury the nuclear material. The salt formations move about three or four inches a year. That pressure can break the bolts holding the roof in place.” Hancock said.

 The WIPP facility is the only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste in the United States.

DOE hopes to reopen WIPP this December.