ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — The U.S. government’s nuclear waste repository in New Mexico has major issues with fire training and firefighting vehicles, with its fleet in disrepair after years of neglect, according to a investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Energy.
The investigation was spurred by allegations of fire protection issues at the repository, which is the backbone of a multi-billion dollar effort to clean up Cold War waste from nuclear research and of bomb-making at national laboratories and defense sites across the United States.
Investigators noted that issues with the firefighter training program dated back to at least 2016. They pointed to an undeveloped training program for the technical rescue program and assertions by firefighters that their training needs were not satisfied.
According to the Inspector General’s report, the problems persisted because the contractor managing the depot did not properly address and close recommendations from previous internal assessments that were intended to correct deficiencies. The report also blamed inadequate oversight by Energy Department officials.
“WIPP has grown with the number of buildings and employees since 2006 and is expected to operate beyond 2050. The next management and operations contractor must be able to provide an effective emergency response to the WIPP to protect lives, property and the environment,” the Bureau said. of the Inspector General said.
Energy Department officials, in a response to the inspector general, said the agency has taken corrective action and will continue to “make progress to ensure that local fire departments and first responders responders have all the training and equipment necessary to manage any event related to WIPP operations”. .”
Still, agency officials acknowledged there was still work to be done.
Security concerns come as New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and others oppose expanding the types of radioactive waste that can be shipped to the repository. In a letter this month to U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the first-term Democratic governor noted ongoing frustration over the lack of meaningful public engagement by federal officials on trash cleanup, shipping and long term plans for the repository.
Just this month, work processing incoming waste shipments was temporarily halted after workers discovered radioactive liquid in a container sent from the Idaho National Laboratory.
The latest report from a federal oversight committee also cited three recent incidents, including one in which a container at Los Alamos National Laboratory was placed underground without proper analysis of its flammability. The container ultimately presented no risk.
Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the depot, expanded its fire brigade to service with full-time emergency responders following two emergencies in 2014. One was a fire involving a truck of transport of salt which was followed a few days later by a release of radiation from a drum which had been improperly packed at Los Alamos.
The incidents prompted significant revisions to policies and procedures related to the National Cleanup Program.
According to the inspector general, a 2019 review found that nearly half of firefighters at the depot had not participated in required live training for at least a year and some had not participated in more than two years. . Another review in April 2021 found that not all firefighter training records were retained in accordance with the hazardous waste permit issued by the state Department of Environment.
In interviews, several firefighters told investigators that the majority of training was web-based, as opposed to hands-on fire drills, vehicle extrication, or rope training. Firefighters expressed concern that without proper training they would lose their skills.
As for the fire department’s fleet, federal officials said they are revising maintenance procedures and about $1.2 million has been spent to purchase two new fire trucks in 2021. .
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