Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Economics of Shutting Down the WIPP Plutonium Dispersal Site, And Why It May Explode Again.

Seems many people in Carlsbad are concerned about losing their jobs and their health. Word is that people are being told to shut up about the situation in order to save their jobs. But, the math of the economics don't support staying silent.

WIPP was near the end of its life cycle when the explosion happened, the majority of its storage rooms were full.  The costs of keeping the WIPP site open for only a limited amount of future space have just skyrocketed to the point where previously more expensive alternatives are now cheaper and more assessable in the near term.

Moreover, DOE WIPP has tried to blame the disaster on a ceiling collapse, as opposed to an explosion which might have caused a ceiling collapse. A ceiling collapse basically rules out  WIPP's future use because it points to an unknown engineering instability that is difficult and expensive to control. Meaning that expanding WIPP's storage capacity enough to average out the costs of the attempted (and neigh impossible) cleanup is highly unlikely and very risky.

On the other hand, an explosion caused by a buildup of Hydrogen and Methane is something that engineering has a chance of mitigating. Albeit, admitting an explosion would be highly embarrassing considering that WIPP has been trying to remove requirements to check for explosive gas build up based on a mathematical analysis indicating that it was impossible for the gases to concentrate to explosive concentrations.

Unfortunately for WIPP and all of us downwind, simulations predicting something is impossible are often based on very flimsy assumptions and ground rules; assumptions like the ventilation system being properly run. It seems that ventilation assumption was thrown out the shaft during the Feb 5th fire when smoke was seen billowing from the Salt shaft. All smoke should have exhausted through the ventilation system.

So, there's a ventilation system in apparent dysfunction, and then nine days later  an event occurs in ROOM 7, the exact place where the simulation indicated explosive gases were most likely to build up. And then, there's a reported rate of radioactive release which also points to explosion.

In the after math of the disaster, we find out that WIPP is attempting to "stabilize" the ventilation system. Obviously meaning, WIPP is back at square one with a ventilation system in apparent dysfunction with explosion damage. As such, assumptions that explosive gases won't build up should be thrown out the window. BE PREPARED TO EVACUATE AT A MOMENTS NOTICE

At best, the economics point to WIPP trying to stabilize the ventilation system to the point that the mine can be sealed up. The best the locals should hope for is a massive flux of money to clean up the mess and prevent it from reoccurring. Yet, how can such funding be appropriated when all are lead to believe that the disaster was a non-event.  They claim the disaster was some 804 TIMES less than a EPA reportable event. Or to put it another way, they are claiming that the same event would have had to happen again an additional 804 times during that week before it would have become "reportable" to the EPA.

To hold out hope that DOE will keep the site in operation one has to believe the following.

(1) the ventilation system can be stabilized before another explosion occurs.
(2) Workers have to able to safely enter a mine with a ceiling collapse, and clean distributed weapons grade Plutonium off of every working surface.
(3) That #2 can be done without releasing more Plutonium into the air and without contaminating the equipment being used beyond the point of being usable.
(4) That #2 & #3 can be done in an environment of uncertain structural stability.
(5) That engineers can somehow declare the mine structurally safe for further use for a mine collapse they didn't see coming.
(6) That the opportunity costs associated with doing 1-5 are less than alternatives operations at other locations.

Its pretty clear that short of a National Security Issue and a Chernobyl style cadre of "human robots", the WIPP site restart is a non starter. The only question is will there be enough money to fund a clean up of something that supposedly didn't get dirty.



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