Published: 2:10 pm, Wed. Nov. 2nd, 2016Updated: 2:05 pm
Under a bright blue sky in a deserted lot, first responders donned protective suits and switched on radiation detection devices.
They moved quickly to extract a screaming woman — her forehead marred by an ugly red gash — from the scene of a car accident and potential radiological incident. The scenario played out several times as 200 first responders underwent a three-day exercise at state police headquarters in Santa Fe. The exercise was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in advance of the planned reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in December.
The training is meant to give state and federal agencies firsthand experience on how to collaborate and react in the event of a roadside nuclear waste disaster, reported The Santa Fe New Mexican. But the scenario being used by the Department of Energy is not the nightmare most residents would fear: that of enormous nuclear waste canisters careering down the highway into incoming traffic or bursting into flames and releasing clouds of toxic radioactive particles into the air.
Officials at the training said such an event would be fantastical, citing the near impenetrability of the waste transport containers and the highly monitored nature of nuclear waste shipments in New Mexico. The implications of a gas tanker exploding roadside, for example, would pose a much higher and real-life threat to the public and first responders, they said.
But too-great-to-fail promises are also what the Department of Energy and the New Mexico Environment Department said about WIPP — that it would “start clean and stay clean” — before an improperly packaged barrel of transuranic waste burst underground in early 2014, shuttering the facility for the last two years and costing millions to clean up.
For the 15 years that WIPP had been operational, up to 600 shipments of waste traversed the country for Carlsbad annually. Each shipment could weigh no more than 80,000 pounds, a weight generally composed of three TrupactII containers — steel vessels 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide that each hold more than a dozen 55-gallon waste drums. The packs were designed to create a double-penetration barrier, making it near impossible for something to puncture the canister from the inside or outside.
Before the TrupactII was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was dropped from a 30-foot height onto a steel platform and again onto a steel spike, then it was submerged in a 50-foot depth of water, and set alight in a blaze of jet fuel for 30 minutes at more than 1,400 degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, said the TrupactII waste containers have never failed, but have also not been tested to failure. (An earlier model, developed in the early ‘90s, was found to have significant design shortcomings and was removed from operation).
“We don’t really know in what circumstances it would fail,” he said. “It’s not clear that a rocket propelled grenade wouldn’t penetrate (it). Certainly some other kind of incidents that one could conceive of would.”
The WIPP accident has also presented a new scenario: What would happen if a drum breached inside a Trupact as happened at WIPP. That drum of waste had been improperly packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a chemical reaction caused the lid to crack open in an underground chamber, releasing radiation and sending temperatures inside to 1,600 degrees. Before arriving at WIPP, that drum first spent a number of hours on State Road 599, traveling through New Mexico in a Trupact drum.
Models and tests for a scenario in which an internal explosion would cause a Trupact to rupture from the inside out have not been conducted and are not required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to Hancock.
“An explosion that can do that much damage in the underground can do some significant damage in a transportation container, but we don’t know” how much, he said.
Hancock said a number of the Trupacts are also now over a decade old and are more worn down.
“To say they haven’t really failed so far would be factual and to say in many of the situations they are likely to be in they wouldn’t fail (is true),” he said. “But in serious accidents they could fail.”
James Mason, Institutional Affairs Manager for the Department of Energy, said the Trupact containers haven’t been modified as a result of the WIPP incident.
“That is one area that was examined (after the drum burst),” he said. “Just due to the way they have been engineered and were put together in the first place, they were deemed still safe in that sort of event.”
What has changed, he said, is how the drums are packaged before they ever reach a Trupact, “so we don’t run into that situation again.”
The accident presented by officials did not require first responders to handle a situation of such extremes. Instead, they were told a T-bone collision had occurred between a car and a vehicle transporting radioactive medical supplies. As part of the scenario, a WIPP-bound truck, containing three empty Trupact containers, drove past just after the incident and ran over some debris. The situation required firefighters, police and medical staff to identify radiation levels at the scene, extract and decontaminate an injured woman, and perform the highest level inspection on the WIPP vehicle to check for any issues.
Eletha Trujillo, WIPP coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, said the exercise was in place now so that, “when shipments do resume, the public understands our response (team) is very well prepared.”
She said a more severe scenario — one in which a Trupact was toppled or compromised — was not chosen because “the lid alone is almost 4,000 pounds and is bolted in.”
“I look at it from a realistic perspective,” she said of the exercise, adding that medical radiation was used instead of nuclear waste because it triggered the necessary training procedures and, “It would be very hard for me to get a real release out of that vehicle.It’s really hard to get a realistic accident that involves radiation with WIPP.”
Martin Vigil, who directed the exercise and is an emergency manager for Santa Fe County, said, “The purpose of this exercise is to see how our response agencies would come together to handle a radiological incident with radiological material.”
He said he was impressed by how seamlessly everyone worked together, with few “turf” issues arising. The largest problem that came up on the first day of training was connecting to the internet.
“Why we drill is to identify these gaps, make adjustments and plug some of these holes,” he added.
While training efforts have been ongoing for hospital staff, police, and firefighters even while WIPP was closed, an accident reenactment of this scale has not occurred in New Mexico in more than a decade. The last cold run of this nature took place in Nambé in 2005. However, as part of the renewed cooperative agreement between the Department of Energy and the state, inked in June 2016, these field exercises are now required to occur every two years.
In fact, much of the regulatory oversight in place only exists because of legal requirements written into the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which required the Department of Energy to hold training and inspect waste shipments at state entry points — as well as requiring that drivers have 100,000 accident-free miles and never drive faster than 65 miles per hour. Shipments that go to lower-level waste storage sites in Texas and Utah only comply with requirements for hazardous waste shipment.
And while the Trupacts have yet to fail, humans do. Between 2002 and 2013, the New Mexico Environment Department reported 29 accidents involving WIPP transport vehicles, most involving a driver being hit by another vehicle or a deer, but in two cases the driver lost control of the vehicle.
One of the worst incidents since WIPP opened occurred when a driver blacked out and let go of the wheel. The truck careered across the highway median and into incoming traffic before veering off the road entirely and turning over. Fortunately, no other cars were injured and the Trupacts were empty. Still, it shut down the highway for hours and required a large crane to extract the heavy drums and vehicle.
In another incident, a WIPP truck collided with another vehicle and while first responders found no evidence of a radiological release, when the truck later arrived at WIPP, radiation was detected, and the shipment was too contaminated to be processed by the facility.
The possibility of such accidents, and the potential for radiological contamination, lead to the creation of N.M. 599, a route bypassing the main population center in Santa Fe for the waste to pass. The potential for catastrophe is also one of the reasons shipments of radioactive waste is some of the most highly monitored and sensitively transported items on the nation’s roads.
Even if the exercise didn’t address the worst-case scenario, Hancock said he is an advocate for such training.
“Transportation needs to be as safe as possible,” he said. “But it is not, and cannot be, 100 percent safe, so you need to do a lot of training.”