A fire which sparked the evacuation of a major underground US nuclear waste plant last month was preventable, according to a report on Friday highlighting safety lapses at the site.
Poor training, badly maintained equipment and unclear procedures were criticized in the report into the subterranean blaze at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Eighty-six workers were underground when the fire broke out on a salt-hauling truck on Feb. 5, in a rare accident at the site used to dispose of material including plutonium-contaminated waste.
Six workers were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation.
Less than two weeks later a low-level radiation leak was detected, although it was not clear whether it was linked to the fire.
The report into the fire detailed a list of problems, including that the “fire protection program was less than adequate,” and that both the maintenance and emergency management response programs were “ineffective.”
There was also “ineffective training and drilling” and “inadequate Headquarters oversight,” it added.
“The board concluded that this accident was preventable,” said the 187-page report by an Accident Investigation Board appointed by the US Department of Energy.
The department describes the New Mexico site as “the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons.”
The plant, about 434km southeast of Albuquerque, is used to dispose of material that includes plutonium-tainted waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, about 483km away, also in New Mexico.
The waste is dumped 655m underground in large rooms excavated in an ancient, stable salt formation.