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.”