Thursday, August 26, 1999

Container Taken to WIPP Was Missing Part

The Associated Press

CARLSBAD -- A shipment of radioactive waste from an Idaho laboratory arrived Wednesday at the U.S. government's nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad -- minus a washer.

A truck that left the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory on Monday rolled through the gates at 2:30 a.m., said Dan Balduini, a spokesman for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

But as the truck underwent the lengthy process of safety checks before being unloaded, crews discovered a rubber washer was missing from one of the two airtight Trupact II containers.

The washer is part of a vent plug used to test for leaks.

There were no leaks, WIPP spokesman Donavan Mager said Wednesday. But crews couldn't find the washer.

"We're doing an investigation to find out where that rubber washer is," he said.

An engineer had checked off that the washer was in place when the truck left the Idaho lab, he said. Now, WIPP will have to notify the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it is missing, he said.

"No matter where the washer is, it's obviously not where it should be," Mager said.

He said the container "did pass the leak test" before leaving Idaho.

"We did not detect any kind of radiation contamination at all," he said.

"One of our waste-handling technicians pulled the plug out (Wednesday) and immediately noticed we don't have this washer that should be there," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the 14 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste have been removed from the Trupact II container for storage in the underground repository. Each drum can hold 55 gallons, so each Trupact container, theoretically, can hold 770 gallons.

The shipment was the 23rd accepted at WIPP since it opened March 26 and was the second shipment from the Idaho lab. WIPP also has received eight shipments from the Rocky Flats plant near Denver and 13 from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Energy expects that hundreds of shipments will be hauled nearly 900 miles from Idaho to southeastern New Mexico.

The latest shipment was announced a week ago after the Idaho lab corrected 21 deficiencies in the way it documents the contents of drums destined for the $2 billion dump. The federal audit findings prompted temporary loss of the Idaho lab's certification to ship material to New Mexico.

Those problems -- which authorities did not consider to have compromised the safety of Idaho's first shipment in April -- raised questions about whether current waste shipments from Idaho contain only radioactive material.

New Mexico has yet to issue a permit for WIPP to handle radioactive waste that's also tainted by solvents and other contaminants. The permit is expected later this year.

Under a 1995 nuclear waste agreement between Idaho and the federal government, the Energy Department must ship about 15,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste out of Idaho by the end of 2002. All 315,000 barrels of waste must be removed by 2019.