Investigative Report Faults Emergency Management, Training in WIPP Fire

All 86 workers evacuated safely, but 13 were treated for smoke inhalation during the Feb. 5, 2014, incident. Many workers had trouble donning their self contained self rescuers, according to the report.

A U.S. Department of Energy investigative panel's report identifies shortcomings in the preventive maintenance program, emergency management, and emergency response training and drills by the Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC managing and operating DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., and it also faults the oversight provided by DOE's Carlsbad Field Office. The panel investigated the underground mine fire that occurred Feb. 5, 2014, and involved a salt haul truck. While all 86 workers in the mine were safely evacuated, six were transported to the Carlsbad Medical Center for treatment for smoke inhalation and seven others were treated on site.

The Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) is a partnership of URS Energy and Construction, Inc., the Babcock and Wilcox Company, and Areva, Inc. WIPP was built as an underground repository for disposal of transuranic waste; disposal operations began in 1999 and are scheduled to continue for 35 years.

The panel's report, released March 14, finds the NWP/Carlsbad Field Office emergency management program is not fully compliant with DOE's requirements for a comprehensive emergency management system. While the report identified the direct cause of the incident as contact between flammable fluids (either hydraulic fluid or diesel fuel) and hot surfaces (most likely the catalytic converter) on the salt haul truck, the investigative board identified 21 error precursors on the date of the fire. The truck operator's training and qualification were inadequate to ensure proper response to a vehicle fire, and he did not initially notify the Central Monitoring Room that there was a fire or describe the fire's location, according to the report.

Many workers had trouble donning their self contained self rescuers; 13 were unable to use theirs successfully, three never donned theirs at all, and 21 SCSRs did not open properly and could not be used. The facility did no training that simulates SCSR use in likely emergency conditions (limited visibility due to dark or smoke-filled areas), and the workers' annual refresher was a video that does not require donning of the SCSR, it states.

Matt Moury, DOE's deputy assistant secretary, Safety, Security, and Quality Programs, appointed the investigative board to examine the incident. He said the report "is a thorough examination of the events that led to the fire and the response to the fire once it was discovered. Obviously, there are many lessons learned that can now be incorporated into the safe future operations of WIPP. I would like to thank the board members for their efforts in drafting a report that will be helpful for the future safe operations of WIPP."

"We welcome the thorough and honest review of the accident investigation team," said Joe Franco, DOE's Carlsbad Field Office manager. "We take these findings seriously and, in fact, we are already implementing many of the corrective actions in the report."

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