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Investigator: Atomic Site Fire Was 'Preventable'

Technicians operate a salt-mining machine in 2011 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Federal investigators have identified avoidable errors linked to a fire last month at a nuclear-waste storage facility in New Mexico. Technicians operate a salt-mining machine in 2011 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Federal investigators have identified avoidable errors linked to a fire last month at a nuclear-waste storage facility in New Mexico. (U.S. Energy Department photo)

A new federal assessment links numerous avoidable errors to a fire last month at an atomic-waste burial site in New Mexico, the Associated Press reports.

The Feb. 5 conflagration at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant took place inside a vehicle that was nearly three decades old, inadequately serviced and in need of a functioning alarm system, according to the findings due for publication on Friday. Shortcomings in crisis procedures and preparatory efforts were also expected to be addressed in the forthcoming analysis.

"It was preventable," Ted Wyka, the Energy Department head of the probe, said of last month's fire. It burned for roughly half an hour before the salt-transport vehicle's operator noticed flames rising from the engine area and unsuccessfully sought to douse them, he said.

The official added that alarm lights at the site took five minutes to begin blinking, and the reaction from central-control workers was unsatisfactory. Six of the facility's 86 on-duty personnel received medical care for inhaling smoke, AP reported.

"We were pretty lucky that day," Wyka said at a public gathering on Thursday. "Despite all the safety systems that sort of let them down, the workforce down in the mine that day was very calm, collected and in many ways heroic."

He described the fire assessment shortly after URS, the waste site's contract operator, said it had reassigned the president of its WIPP subsidiary to a lower-ranking post.

In that personnel change, Farok Sharif -- who also previously headed the Nuclear Waste Partnership -- is now expected to help find short-term destinations for nuclear waste slated for burial at the site, AP reported separately. Bob McQuinn, a 35-year veteran with experience in high-risk Energy Department nuclear-complex programs, will replace Sharif.

Underground portions of the complex have been off-limits since a Feb. 14 radioactive-material leak that was apparently unrelated to the vehicle fire.

"We are committed to returning WIPP to safe, compliant operations," James Taylor, head of URS global operations, said in written comments. "I am confident these structural realignments will strengthen our recovery efforts."

Officials are set in several weeks to issue separate findings on the radiological incident, which spread contamination to 17 personnel.

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