Operators prepare drums of nuclear waste for loading into transportation containers   

Plutonium is nasty stuff. It’s highly radioactive, so breathing plutonium dust is not a good way to live to a ripe old age. And did I mention it’s an essential ingredient in most thermonuclear weapons? For these and many other reasons, nuclear waste contaminated with plutonium is not something you just toss in the ordinary trash can.

That is why, at great trouble and expense, the US Department of Energy built the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) about 15 years ago, a few miles outside Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is the nation’s only federally operated “permanent” disposal facility for nuclear waste. I put permanent in quotes, because, well, something that happened last Valentine’s Day showed that so far, putting stuff there is anything but permanent storage.

WIPP is in a salt mine, but salt happens to be a by-product. The reason WIPP was constructed in the middle of a large salt deposit is that over geological time scales, salt acts more like Silly Putty than rock—it bends and flows instead of breaking, and seals any cracks that might develop. So the scientists and engineers who designed WIPP chose to site it thousands of feet underground in a salt deposit so that even after 10,000 years, underground water would be unlikely to penetrate to the still-radioactive by-products of nuclear-weapons manufacturing, which comes from a number of national labs dating all the way back to World War II.

And for most of the facility’s history, things went more or less according to plan. After they dug tunnels in the salt and opened up an area the size of several soccer fields, they began filling the space with 55-gallon drums full of nuclear waste from places like Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and elsewhere.

Then, on the night of Feb. 14, 2014, when no one was actually underground but some monitoring personnel were standing their watches on the surface, a radiation alarm went off alerting technicians to high levels of radioactivity underground. The expert who knew what to do about such an alarm was not on duty. They tried to contact this person, without success. This went on till early on the morning of February 15, when some workers began to suspect that the radiation released underground might be coming up through the ventilation system to the surface. After trying to change some ventilation filters, managers finally ordered the WIPP personnel to go to a safe location, but by that time they had been exposed to low levels of radiation, as a later investigation showed.

What happened?

According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, one of the drums stored underground spontaneously ruptured, spewing out several cubic feet of white foam laced with plutonium. Some of the foam or vapor from it got into the ventilation system that exchanges air between the underground rooms and the surface. This system had radiation detectors, and in the event of a release of radioactive material, it was supposed to divert the ventilation air to filters that would catch all radioactive particles. But the dampers assigned to do this leaked, and lots of contaminated air got to the surface anyway. Over six months later, WIPP is still in a partial-shutdown mode, and estimates of what it will take to restore it to safe operation range up to US$100 million or more.

Opinions on the propriety of nuclear technology range all the way from “no way, José” to “nuclear energy is our best weapon against global warming” and everywhere in between. Dead-set opponents of nuclear energy will see in the WIPP accident evidence that plans to keep nuclear waste safe for thousands of years in an underground facility have now been revealed to be a sorry joke. The disabling of WIPP for receiving nuclear waste has not only put the whole idea of underground disposal into doubt, but has also caused a chain reaction (so to speak) of delays in cleanups of nuclear labs around the US.

For those who still believe nuclear energy is a good long-term option for our future energy needs, the WIPP accident shows how even the best-laid plans can be upset by a failure of management integrity. Even now, no one knows exactly what happened chemically inside that drum to cause it to rupture. Investigations have revealed lapses in the procedures used to transfer information about each drum’s contents to WIPP operators. In other words, WIPP managers are not sure what went into that drum in the first place, so they don’t have a basis for duplicating it and maybe finding out how to prevent other similar ruptures. Finding one rattlesnake just hatching out of an egg strongly motivates you to wonder where the other eggs are, and the WIPP people may be sitting on dozens of plutonium rattlesnake eggs. And you thought you had problems.

All this talk about 10,000-year lifetimes makes me wonder what will be left of our own civilization even a thousand years from now. Egypt has its pyramids, Greece has its temples, and maybe all we’ll have is WIPP?

A few days ago, a relative of mine sent me a video of the opening of a time capsule that was buried only 50 years ago, in 1964, at the founding of a bank in Fort Worth, Texas, where my father used to work. Whoever designed that time capsule did a good job: along with the perishable newsprint and film reels, they packed a sock full of desiccator and sealed the whole thing with an air-tight lead seal. As a result, the stuff inside looked like it had just been put on the shelf yesterday.

A 50-year time capsule is a far stretch from a 10,000-year nuclear waste repository. But when we are talking about stuff that could kill anyone it touches, the highest standards of engineering and safety must be followed, from the minute that hazardous waste reaches WIPP to the end of the 10,000-year warranty period. There will be pleas for more money for WIPP as a result of this accident, but money isn’t the only answer.

Money can’t buy integrity, and money alone can’t bring into being a cadre of dedicated individuals to whom their duty with regard to safety is their highest calling. About the only place in government you can find this attitude consistently these days is in the military. I’m not saying we should call in the Marines to take over WIPP. But if they did, I bet you wouldn’t have any more twelve-hour delays between the time an alarm went off and the time appropriate actions were taken.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...