The DOE released a report by an independent technical assessment team (TAT) that evaluated the mechanisms and chemical reactions contributing to the failure of a waste drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, NM. The TAT concluded that one drum, Drum 68660, was the source of radioactive contamination released during the February 14, 2014, radiological event at WIPP. The contents of Drum 68660 were chemically incompatible and the drum breached as a result of internal chemical reactions.

A photo of Drum 68660 during the WIPP incident investigation.

A photo of Drum 68660 during the WIPP incident investigation.

As a pillar of the WIPP Recovery Effort, the DOE charged the TAT with determining, to the extent feasible, the mechanisms and chemical reactions that may have resulted in the breach of at least one waste drum and release of waste material. The TAT included scientists from several DOE national laboratories, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories, and was led by Savannah River National Laboratory. Lab participants included scientific experts from across several disciplines, such as sampling and analysis, forensic science, modeling, and reaction chemistry—enabling the generation and peer review of scientifically based conclusions.

The TAT’s final report delivered five key judgments:

  1. The contents of Drum 68660 were chemically incompatible. (Drum 68660 is the one waste drum known to have breached in the underground at WIPP.)
  2. Drum 68660 breached as a result of internal chemical reactions that generated heat and produced gases that built up pressure sufficient to overcome the drum vent and seal.
  3. Drum 68660 was the source of the radiological release in WIPP.
  4. Initiation of the thermal runaway was internal and not caused by phenomena outside Drum 68660.
  5. Thermal and pressure effects resulted in the movement of material during the release event and caused the secondary damage observed in [the disposal area in WIPP where Drum 68660 was placed]; the release did not result from a detonation.

This report served to answer several critical questions about the cause of the radiation release at WIPP that took place on February 14, 2014. It also strengthened notions among DOE officials about ways in which events of this kind can be avoided in the future. The TAT’s ability to draw on the expertise of five national laboratories, working in harmony, led to technically reliable and properly vetted conclusions even though circumstances did not allow for the drum known to have breached to be removed from the waste emplacement room in which it remains at WIPP or otherwise closely examined. The report and the collaborative work that underlies it exemplifies the value of national laboratories and their importance to the nation.

Finally, the Sandia team was selected to receive one of this year’s Employee Recognition Awards (ERAs). In addition, Leanna Minier, Sandia’s EM Dynamic & Reactive Science Dept. Manager, who served as the technical lead for the Sandia team, also won an individual ERA for leadership.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) funded this scientific investigation.