April 15, 2022
Fire Protection Concerns at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
The Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the Nation’s only geologic repository for the disposal of defense-generated transuranic waste from Department sites around the country. Transuranic waste consists of clothing, tools, residues, debris, soil, and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. WIPP is located southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, where waste is permanently disposed of in rooms mined in an underground salt bed layer over 2,000 feet beneath the surface. WIPP is managed and operated by Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC with oversight by the Department’s Carlsbad Field Office.
The Office of Inspector General received allegations regarding firefighting concerns at WIPP. Specifically, the complainant alleged that there were proposed changes to the Baseline Needs Assessment that would have resulted in safety concerns and noncompliant conditions. In addition, the complainant alleged that training records were either falsified or lied about such as with the Technical Rescue program. The complainant also alleged that the Fire Department vehicle fleet was in disrepair from years of neglected maintenance. We initiated this inspection to determine the facts and circumstances regarding the alleged firefighting concerns at WIPP.
We did not substantiate the allegation that there were proposed changes to the Baseline Needs Assessment that would have resulted in safety concerns and noncompliant conditions. However, we found that the WIPP contractor used a superseded version of a Department Order when drafting the 2020 Baseline Needs Assessment, which could have impacted its content. In addition, while we did not substantiate the allegation that Fire Department training records were falsified or lied about, there were significant and recurring issues pertaining to the Fire Department training program going back to at least calendar year 2016 that were identified in prior internal assessments. These issues included undeveloped training curriculum for the Technical Rescue program. Finally, we substantiated the allegation that the WIPP Fire Department vehicle fleet was in disrepair from years of neglected maintenance. A WIPP contractor official told us that Fire Department vehicle maintenance procedure revisions were in progress.
WIPP has experienced growth with the number of buildings and employees since 2006 and is anticipated to operate beyond 2050. The next management and operating contractor must be able to provide effective emergency response at WIPP to protect lives, property, and the environment.
To address the issues identified in this report, we have made seven recommendations that, if fully implemented, should help ensure that the issues identified during our inspection are corrected.