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WIPP Installs Underground Personnel Notification and Tracking System

A wireless system is now in place underground at the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP, that allows two-way communication for both talk and text, with audible and flashing alarms, so personnel can immediately signal the Central Monitoring Room during an emergency. The system also provides real-time tracking of all personnel entering the WIPP underground. Disposal operations at WIPP, the transuranic waste disposal site outside of Carlsbad, N.M., were suspended after two serious incidents in February 2014 that involved worker exposures to smoke and radiation, causing DOE to issue a Preliminary Notice of Violation to Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC for violations of DOE worker safety and health and nuclear safety requirements and the National Nuclear Security Administration to issue a PNOV to Los Alamos National Security for violations of DOE's nuclear safety requirements.

Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC is the management and operating contractor for WIPP, while Los Alamos National Security is the management and operating contractor for NNSA's Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The Feb. 5, 2014, event involved a fire in a salt haul truck underground, with six workers later treated for smoke inhalation. On Feb. 14, a continuous air monitor went into alarm because of a radiological release; DOE later confirmed 13 workers' radiation exposures.

In an April 5, 2016, Federal Register notice, DOE indicated waste disposal operations at WIPP are expected to resume in late 2016. That notice concerned a DOE/NNSA decision to dispose of six metric tons of surplus non-pit plutonium there, once WIPP is again operational. The plutonium will be prepared and packaged to meet the WIPP waste acceptance criteria for contact-handled TRU waste and other applicable regulatory requirements, according to the notice.

The WIPP incidents are part of the reason President Obama submitted to Congress fiscal year 2017 budget amendments on April 5 for various federal departments, including amendments for the Department of Energy. One would start the modernization of Strategic Petroleum Reserve infrastructure, which is at the end of its design life, and two offsetting amendments would provide an increased amount to fund part of the settlement costs related to the February 2014 incidents at WIPP and the associated activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to the president's letter.

As for the new tracking system, "I'm incredibly proud of this accomplishment," said Phil Breidenbach, Nuclear Waste Partnership president and project manager. "We have done many things to improve safety in the WIPP underground, but none are more important or impactful than this system." The system depicts hard hat icons to represent workers in the WIPP underground on tracking monitors located at the facility, and the hats move in real time as the employees do. The wireless system works with radios that are clipped to each employee's belt and are equipped with an emergency alert button. Pushing the button activates an emergency alert that overrides all other communication and an alarm on three separate monitors that pinpoints the employee's location.

WIPP's March 31 announcement of the system's installation said training is under way and the system will be implemented during the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the next WIPP quarterly town hall meeting to provide an update on WIPP recovery activities will start at 5:30 p.m. on April 7 at the Carlsbad City Council Chambers.

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