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Environment Department

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) - Incident and Operations Updates

SignResponse to February 2014 Underground Salt Truck Fire and
Radionuclide Release Events

Documents Page

Photos & Maps Page

Weekly Town Hall Meetings

  • 1st and 3rd Thursdays of the month at 5:30; Carlsbad City Council Chambers, City Hall, 101 N. Halagueno St.
    • Co-hosted by City of Carlsbad and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Carlsbad Field Office
    • Discuss recovery efforts following WIPP's fire and radiological events in February.
  • Meetings available live online at

  • Incident Timeline
    • February 5, 2014:  A diesel powered salt-hauler vehicle caught fire in the underground forcing workers to evacuate and operations to cease. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, however this event occurred in an area removed from where waste is handled and emplaced. Waste handling operations in the underground will cease while the event is investigated.

    • February 14, 2014, at 11:13 PM:  A continuous air monitoring (CAM) alarm in the underground indicated the detection of radiation above background trigger points. A second alarm followed immediately indicating detection of radiation at higher levels. This triggered a switch from exhausting air to the environment to first passing exhaust air (effluent) through a filtration system before exhausting to the environment.

    • February 19, 2014: NMED receives first notification of a confirmed release to atmosphere. Sec. Flynn immediately travels to Carlsbad upon notification to gather information.

    • February 20, 2014: At the insistence of NMED, DOE holds first news conference in Carlsbad with DOE CBFO Manager Joe Franco. Sec. Flynn participates. The Department of Energy (DOE) and other sources have confirmed trace amounts of particulate radiation released to the surface and into the atmosphere at the WIPP facility. The release is being monitored by DOE, NMED, and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring Research Center (CEMRC). The WIPP underground remains shutdown as the DOE and others investigate the cause of the event that released radioactive material to the underground, exhaust system, and surface.

    • February 27, 2014:  NMED issued a first Administrative Order to DOE that does not allow commencement of normal operations until NMED inspects and approves the facility (more below).

    • Laboratory analyses of filter media collected following the event are being processed. Following data validation, these results are made available to the public. CMERC data and DOE data already available.

    • Plans are being prepared to conduct additional environmental sampling and analysis to determine the impact this event has on human health and the environment.

    • March 18, 2014: First manned entry into the underground repository performed by DOE inspectors.

    • March 21, 2014: NMED withdrew WIPP's draft Permit for the Class 3 modification. This will also close the public comment period for this draft.

    • March 26, 2014: NMED requested additional funding for NMED’s DOE Oversight Bureau for sampling and analysis.

    • April 1, 2014: Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory (LANL) begins shipping TRU waste to Waste Control Specialists in Texas for temporary storage until WIPP reopens.

    • April 2, 2014: The first team has completed surveys and established a base camp in the underground. A second team is headed underground to check conditions between the Salt Hoist and the Air Intake Shaft. The remainder of today’s re-entry activities is expected to take about three hours.

    • May 1, 2014: DOE suspends all shipments of LANL TRU Waste.

    • May 2, 2014: NMED notified that DOE/LANL made an unauthorized switch of a clay-based kitty litter absorbent to an organic kitty litter absorbent. DOE informs NMED that the organic kitty litter switch is being studied as a contributor to the possible container breach at WIPP.

    • May 12, 2014: NMED issued a second Administrative Order with actions for WIPP to take to ensure continued protection of human health and the environment.

    • May 15, 2014: A WIPP underground investigative team takes the first photographs that identify the source of the release as a container of waste generated at LANL.

    • May 19, 2014: In response to the visual evidence provided on May 16 and further information reported to NMED, NMED issued a third Administrative Order to DOE for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The order required DOE/ LANL to develop a LANL Nitrate-Bearing Waste Container Isolation Plan. LANL is required to stay in daily contact with NMED once the plan is approved and implemented. NMED also requires DOE to ensure Waste Control Specialists (WCS) in Texas is taking measures to safeguard and/or isolate the over 100 barrels/TRU waste containers that also have Nitrate Salts combined with organic kitty litter.

    • May 20, 2014: NMED issued a fourth Administrative Order to DOE for WIPP. The focus of this Order was to develop a WIPP Nitrate-Bearing Waste Container Isolation Plan. The Permittees are required to explain the relative safety of the MIN02 waste stream and the other three streams that are described in the same Acceptable Knowledge (AK) document. The order cites 368 total Nitrate Bearing Waste Containers at WIPP: 313 in Panel 6 and 55 in Panel 7, Room 7. NMED orders DOE/WIPP to expedite permanent closure of Panel 6 and the closure of Panel 7, Room 7 after the investigation into the cause of the radiological release is concluded.

    • May 21, 2014: An initial plan was received by NMED from DOE/LANL in response to the third Administrative Order. NMED reviewed the Plan, found it to be deficient in several areas, and submitted comments back to LANL.

    • May 23, 2014: NMED approved the DOE/LANL Nitrate-Bearing Waste Container Isolation Plan contingent upon implementation of submitted comments. The 57 Nitrate-bearing waste containers at LANL have been over packed into standard waste boxes and isolated into stainless steel frames and sheeting and placed in a storage dome which has fire protection systems, contaminated control filtration, continuous air monitoring alarms (CAMs) and temperature controlled systems. LANL is monitoring the waste containers on an hourly basis.

    • May 30, 2014: The last entry into WIPP before a two to four week halt on underground entires, which concentrated on the first collection of actual samples from Panel 7, Room 7. All prior entries to that room focused on visual inspections only.

    • May 30, 2014: WIPP submits its Nitrate Salt-Bearing Waste Container Isolation Plan to NMED in accordance to instructions from the fourth Administrative Order issued by NMED on May 20, 2014. The plan remains under review.

    • June 1, 2014: A two to four week halt on underground entries at WIPP begins. This will allow for filter changes, including removing contaminated HEPA filters which blocked the outside release of most of the radiological nuclides from the underground.

    • June 6, 2014: NMED receives confirmation that the over 100 barrels/TRU Nitrate-Bearing Waste containers at WCS in Texas have been isolated and buried underground. A layer of sand is above the containers to further ensure the containers remain cool and WCS continues to monitor the isolated waste containers.

    • June 10, 2014: NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn testifies in front of the Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Interim Committee at the State Capitol. Sec. Flynn reports that DOE/LANL is taking a closer look at six (6) waste containers that share similar characteristics of having very acidic pH levels inside the containers, along with the Nitrate Salts mixed with organic kitty litter. Those six (6) containers include the one (1) breached container at WIPP and five (5) other containers already in isolation at WCS in Texas.


Who's involved

Multiple parties, including those listed below, are working to investigate and monitor impacts to human health and the environment related to these events.

  • U.S. Department Of Energy (DOE) - WIPP is a DOE facility. [WIPP Website]

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - The EPA's role is to ensure that WIPP protects human health and the environment during the disposal phase, the repository closure phase, and the repository’s long-term performance post-closure. The EPA is responsible for certifying the facility’s compliance with repository performance requirements. The original certification was granted in 1999. EPA also reviews new information from DOE to determine whether the certification should be modified, suspended or revoked and must conduct a recertification of the facility every 5 years. Visit EPA's website for more information on EPA's history and legal authority at WIPP.[EPA's Role] -and- [EPA's Activities] 

  • Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC (NWP) - The U.S. DOE contracts with NWP to manage and operate WIPP. [NWP Website]

  • New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) - NMED's Hazardous Waste Bureau regulates the hazardous waste component of mixed waste emplaced at WIPP and provides technical guidance to all New Mexico hazardous waste generators, treatment, storage, and disposal facilities as required by the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act. In accordance with the Act, NMED issued the original hazardous waste permit to WIPP in 1999. The permit must be renewed every 10 years. Compliance with the permit is determined by NMED.

    NMED Oversight Bureau conducts oversight and monitoring activities at WIPP.  Monitoring programs include both joint and independent evaluations of impacts to the environment and public health. Environmental sampling and analysis include particulates in air, soils and sediments, vegetation, surface and ground water.

    **New Mexico does not have authority to regulate the radiological components of the mixed waste at WIPP.  Radiological emissions are regulated by EPA’s Radiation Protection Program.

  • N.M. Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force (a.ka. Governor's WIPP Task Force)- The membership is comprised of the Secretaries of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Department of Health, Environment Department, Department of Public Safety, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Department of Transportation, and the State Fire Marshal or their designees.

  • Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center (CEMRC) - a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University. CEMRC facility and staff provide support to WIPP, LANL, SNL, and WTS primarily through site and environmental monitoring, in vivo bioassay, and scientific and laboratory support. [CEMRC website]

  • Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB)- The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) is an independent organization within the executive branch chartered with the responsibility of providing recommendations and advice to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense nuclear facilities. [DNFSB website] DOE and DNFSB evaluation request letter and report


NMED's Significant Roles and Responsibilities at WIPP:

NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau (HWB) actions:

  • Responsible for issuing and enforcing WIPP's permit for a hazardous waste Treatment, Disposal, and Storage Facility (TDSF) in accordance with the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act. State regulations incorporate by reference most federal regulations pertaining to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). [More information on the WIPP Permit]
  • WIPP Permit: regulates the hazardous component of transuranic (TRU) mixed waste received at WIPP. WIPP cannot receive hazardous waste unless it also has a radioactive component, and qualifies as defense-related TRU mixed waste.
  • HWB WIPP Group assisting with Radiological Release Event including review of Exhaust Filter Building operation and associated Documented Safety Analysis (DSA).

NMED DOE Oversight Bureau (DOE OB) actions:

  • Continues to monitor the air at the WIPP and surrounding areas. Exhaust air filters are collected from Stations A and B and shipped to contract laboratories for analysis of gross alpha and beta, isotopic plutonium, isotopic uranium, americium, strontium, and gamma-emitting isotopes (like cesium). The Bureau also monitors ambient air at WIPP, at locations along the Jal Highway, and in Carlsbad. Ambient air filter samples are collected bi-weekly (every 14 days) and are analyzed for gross alpha and beta,  isotopic plutonium, isotopic uranium, strontium, americium and gamma-emitting isotopes.

  • Continues to monitor gamma radiation (direct penetrating radiation) both on and off-site at WIPP on a quarterly basis.

  • Conducts sampling and analysis of soil, sediment and vegetation in the vicinity of WIPP for radiological constituents. Soil, sediment and vegetation are is analyzed for isotopic plutonium, isotopic uranium, americium, strontium and gamma-emitting isotopes.


Laws, Rules, Regulations:

The State of New Mexico is authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Hazardous Waste Program. The New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act (NMSA 1978, §§ 74-4-1 to-14) and its implementing Hazardous Waste Management Regulations, 20.4.1 New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC), provide the statutory and regulatory requirements for hazardous waste in New Mexico.  

New Mexico Hazardous Waste Management Regulations -- 20.4.1 NMAC [PDF] The Governor's WIPP Task Force - authorized by the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Act [Section 74-4A-2 through 74-4A-14 NMSA 1978]


Documents & Links:

For access to all posted documents related to the WIPP incident, please visit the
WIPP 2014 Documents Page

Website Links



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