A Coalition Opposing the Expansion of WIPP
Dear Folks,
DOE is doing it again. They want to vent unfiltered, contaminated air from the underground at WIPP into the public environment. This is very similar to DOE's plans to vent radioactive tritium gas onto the public from LANL. Both plans remove radioactive waste from the site by "dumping" it onto the public. Neither release is urgent (LANL even admits this). Instead, both will help DOE meet arbitrary "cleanup" deadlines.
In fact DOE, WIPP and LANL are developing a new "cleanup strategy" to dump radioactive waste into the public air space. We must resist their efforts. The WIPP test we'll describe below, is a precursor to running the WiPP 700-C fan on an ongoing basis, starting in 2021, according to their current schedule. And we don't know when it would end given DOE's and Nuclear Waste Partnership's (NWP) mismanagement of WIPP. There could be continuous releases for a very long time.
Read on for more information on the 700-C WIPP radioactive venting or scroll toward the bottom to see what action steps are providd.
                                                    release paths of
                                                    contaminated air,
                                                    from WIPP
Expected release paths of unfiltered radioactive exhaust air through the 700-C fan
Because the drum explosion and radioactive release in 2014 contaminated the air underground and damaged the filter building that filtered radioactive exhaust air, since then, underground workers have had only about 25% of the air they need.
This problem would have been solved within a year by the New Filter Building that was being constructed, but NWP, the WIPP contractor, and DOE/WIPP managed the New Filter Building contract so badly that construction has stopped. Even the the Government Accountability Office (GAO) seems to think NWP/DOE/WIPP are unable to manage such a large contract competently.
Without the New Filter Building, NWP is planning on cranking up the exhaust fans they haven't used in 6 1/2 years and venting the contaminated underground air directly into the environment—without filtration. First there will be some tests and if all goes well, unfiltered, contaminated air will be vented continuously from WIPP (except when waste is being emplaced) for the indefinite future.
Under their modeling, the maximum dose to a nearby individual will be very small and will mostly affect WIPP employees. However, safety and competence at WIPP have not improved since the drum explosion in 2014, as the New Filter Building problems and this 700-C fan venting plan show. How can we have any confidence that they will actually be able to keep to their limit, considering their history of incompetence and mistakes? The lack of air problem is a problem of DOE's and WIPP's own making which they have compounded again and again, by their continuing mistakes. Now they want to solve their problem the quick & dirty way, by dumping it into the public environment. So much for the  state Environment Department permit requirement that WIPP "Start clean. Stay clean."
The underground
                                              ventilation system at
The underground ventilation system at WIPP. The 700-C Fan is on the left.
And NWP downplays what the effects will be, ignoring that radioactive particles are forever. Their intentional, semi-continuous release will be added to the larger WIPP release from 2014 and both will be added to the huge release from the Trinity Atom Bomb test in 1945. None of this goes away, but is suspended and re-suspended, taken up by crops and livestock, and breathed from the air.
Supposedly, NWP/DOE/WIPP will have an online townhall meeting, possibly Tuesday morning, to discuss the first 700-C test (unfiltered venting for 4 hours), then possibly a longer "balancing test." They are pushing everything so quickly because they're in a great hurry to meet their work deadlines. Ironically, these are "cleanup" deadlines.
However, there is no mention of this meeting on their website at and the tests and the 700-C fan venting plan have not been widely publicized. There is a Fact Sheet, a "justification" for the venting and more documents on the website, but some of the information contains mistakes and there is no information in Spanish. The Radiological Monitoring Plan that is referenced in some of the online documents is also not posted. The haste with which NWP/DOE/WIPP are going forward with the venting plan and the lack of public involvement are concerning—especially, coming so soon after the debacle of the New Filter Building construction halt.
Make your concerns known by emailing NWP/DOE/WIPP at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and ask:
  1. Why have they not better publicized their plan to vent unfiltered, radioactive air into the environment?

  2. Will there be a townhall or some kind of information meeting for the public to discuss this plan? When will it be held and will there be enough advance notice so that the public can inform themselves about the plan and arrange to attend?

  3. Can the meeting be held after 5:00 pm so more people can attend?

  4. How can the Spanish speaking public be included and informed about the plans and the town hall meeting? Have NWP/DOE/WIPP advertisd in newspapers that have articles in Spanish, especially in the local area (50 mile radius of WIPP)? Have they put notices about the plan and the meeting on Spanish-speaking radio stations, especially those that serve the Southeast New Mexico area near WIPP?

  5. How can those without adequate internet access be included and informed about the plans and how can they have the equivalent of the online meeting during this pandemic? Again, have NWP/DOE/WIPP advertised in state newspapers and put notices on the radio statewide, but especially in the local area around WIPP?

  6. Despite the paper on their website, Rational for Considering Restart and Temporary Use of 700-C Ventilation System, how can they justify adding more contamination to an area that is already heavily contaminated with radioactive and hazardous materials and has a history of poor health, high cancer death rates and low life expectancies—simply to make work underground proceed more efficiently to meet arbitrary waste emplacement deadlines?

  7. And whatever else you might want to ask!
WIPP was a "pilot project" to demonstrate the safe, deep geologic disposal of transuranic waste. It is required by law to keep the waste isolated for 10,000 years. Unfortuantely, it couldn't even keep the waste contained for 15 years, when they had their first, unintentional release on Valentine's Day 2014.
WIPP was supposed to "Start clean. Stay clean." But with their with their current intentional release plans they seem almost to have given up on this. WIPP is supposed to be a major part of the cleanup of all DOE's sites, but what's happening at WIPP resembles real cleanup in name only. It's time that NWP, WIPP and DOE understand that this failed project should close on schedule in 2024. NWP should concentrate on doing things right and safely until then, instead of rushing ahead to meet some deadline, or to check off a box on their contract to get their bonus.
Smoke released from an underground truck fire at WIPP, on February 5, 2014
—nine days before the drum explosion that released radioactive and hazardous
waste into the environment and damaged the filter building. 

WIPP moving ahead with use of fan that could release radioactivity into environment
Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
December 8, 2020

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials seeking to improve air flow at the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad said they planned to test a fan that could release radioactive contamination into the environment.

WIPP officials announced they intended to perform a “hot test” in the coming weeks when the fan will be run for four-hour intervals as surface radiation levels are monitored. A public meeting on the move was planned for Thursday.

The 700-C fan, a large exhaust fan, would be used to draw air from the underground to increase the availability of clean air for workers beneath the surface.

WIPP’s underground area, where transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste is disposed of about 2,000 feet beneath the surface, struggled with low airflow since radiation was accidentally released in 2014 after a drum ruptured, leading to a three year shutdown of WIPP’s primary operations.

Radioactive contaminants were found in the underground and on the surface in the days after the incident.

Since the incident, WIPP’s managers sought ways to increase airflow to allow waste emplacement, mining and maintenance to occur simultaneously, thus allow work to be completed quicker.

If the fan was restarted, WIPP officials reported only trace amounts of particles that could emit radiation would be released, and the test was intended to study the potential extent of contamination and release of radioactivity during its use.

A fact sheet on the project published by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the maximum release would be about 2,000 times below maximum levels enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

WIPP officials estimated restarting the fan could release a dose of about .005 millirems of radiation, compared with a dose of 1,000 millirems experienced from a whole body computerized tomography (CT) scan.

The facility’s permit does not allow it to release enough radiation that would give a dose of 10 millirems per year to a person at the site boundary line.

The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reported an average American receives about 620 millirems per yea.

Opinions differ on level of radioactivity to be released

The fan would only be used during mining and ground control work when steel bolts are installed into the walls of the underground to control the salt creep that ultimately buries the waste.

A report from Nuclear Waste Partnership justified the use of the fan by pointing to the “minimal” risk of radiation exposure at the surface of the site while benefitting worker safety in the underground by improving available clean air.

“In summary, the benefits are improved safety and comfort for underground workers, and improved WIPP operating efficiency and schedule for DOE and its contractors,” the report read.

“In a broader view, the benefit to a more efficient WIPP is reduction in ‘time at risk’ of thousands of cubic meters of TRU waste in storage around the DOE Complex which can be more promptly placed underground into safe, permanent, isolation.”

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force said in any mine, especially at WIPP, airflow was crucial to successful operations.

Due to low airflow, waste emplacement, mining of new areas to hold the waste and maintenance were forced to be conducted separately which meant the work was completed at a slower rate.

He said the added airflow from restarting the fan was needed, especially after a reconstruction of the facility’s overall ventilation system recently stalled as Nuclear Waste Partnership terminated the subcontractor amid numerous design modifications after the work began.

“Air in a mine is the most critical component,” Heaton said. “WIPP has been suffering under very low airflow since the (2014) accident. It complicates their work significantly in balancing mining with disposal and maintenance. Getting more air would make a big difference in their ability to move quickly.”

“I think they were hoping to get more air through the shaft,” Heaton said. “With it being delayed, it makes sense to use the fan.”

And if the fan became operational, Heaton said it is located away from the contaminated area in the underground, and that any area that might hold radioactive particles had been cleaned since the 2014 incident.

“There might be something,” he said of a potential release during the test. “We believe there will be a minimal release. There might be something, but it will of a very small magnitude.”

Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director at the Southwest Research and Information Center – an Albuquerque-based government watchdog group – said he was concerned there could be more radiation still in the underground and its ventilation system than estimated.

He said testing the fan could prove dangerous in exposing workers on the surface to radioactivity, and that readings from a four-hour test would be inadequate to determining the amount of radiation released during years of the fan’s operation.

“The amount of radioactivity and its exact composition, we don’t really know. If the amount released in the underground is more than they think then that’s a bigger problem,” Hancock said. “What is released in a four-hour test will be a lot less than what is released in two years.”

Hancock said the air released by the fan would be unfiltered, differing from operations so far since the release, and that the DOE had not provided an explanation as to why air filtration was no longer needed.

“Yes, it’s dangerous and it’s unnecessary,” he said. “They’ve been saying they will not exhaust unfiltered air. They haven’t told us what changed. People on the surface would be exposed to radiation more than what they’re already exposed to, on a chronic basis. That’s a problem.

“The problem is you have uncontained radioactivity being released into the air which is never something that is supposed to happen.”