Workers at a New Mexico nuclear waste storage facility that suffered an underground fire and radiation leak last month lack adequate safety training, oversight or a proper response plan for emergencies, a federal investigation has found.
In a report released Friday, Energy Department investigators faulted employees at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, near Carlsbad, for failing to maintain equipment and failing to correct procedures regulators have faulted before — issues that became apparent when a truck caught fire Feb. 5 followed by a radiation leak Feb. 14.
The report said it was unclear if the two events were connected. No one was seriously injured in either case and officials at the site said no radiation leaked to the surface. The plant has been closed since the leak and authorities said they would continue to investigate.
New Mexico's Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, praised investigators.
"The board has identified a number of serious safety concerns that will need to be fully addressed," Udall and Heinrich said in a statement. "We believe all levels of management at the Department of Energy and at WIPP must take the recommendations from the board very seriously and fully implement them."
The senators added, "We still need a full understanding of what caused the radiation leak that occurred on Feb. 14 and the steps that need to be taken to ensure the safety of WIPP personnel and the Carlsbad community."
WIPP's continued closure could create a backup of defense nuclear waste. A federal treatment plant in Idaho and a laboratory in the San Francisco Bay Area both send their waste to the 2,150-foot-deep repository.
Steve Pearce, a Republican congressman who represents the New Mexico district that houses WIPP, said he expected the plant to address the shortcomings pointed out in the report.
"This transparent report highlights the sloppy procedures that caused the fire," Pearce said in a statement. "New Mexicans expect and deserve to know the full truth. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but it must never happen again."