Friday, March 28, 2014

Monuments Men Records at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

The Monuments Men
The Monuments Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Text Message » Monuments Men Records at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland:

The recent movie, The Monuments Men, and the continuing interest in art provenance research, prompted us to share some information about the primary records for research documenting the work of the Monuments Men (actually Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives [MFA&A] personnel) in protecting, locating, recovering, and restituting cultural property during and after World War II.  There is extensive information about the background, recruitment, training, and deployment, as well as many of the activities of the Monuments Men spread across several record groups at the National Archives in College Park.
Record Group 239: Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas
An excellent starting point when beginning research on the Monuments Men are the Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (RG 239), better known by the name of its chairman, The Roberts Commission. The Commission records also document much of the work of the Monuments Men because copies of reports and other documentation were sent to it. Although the Commission was active from 1943 to 1946, its records include some materials dating from 1940 to 1947.  There are also nearly 20,000 still photographs in this record group.  The photographs were taken in Europe, North Africa, Palestine, the Philippine Islands, Burma, China, and the Netherlands East Indies. These photographs show depositories and looted artwork, effects of bomb damage and vandalism to cities and monuments, liberation by the Allies, and commission employees.  Additionally, there are nearly 1,500 maps of provinces, regions, and cultural sites in Europe and Asia, photocopied with overlays marking sites that were to be spared destruction (a few maps are originals with manuscript overlays), with accompanying documentation. Most of these records were reproduced on 187 rolls of National Archives Microfilm Publication M1944, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission).
One series of records in Record Group 239, Copies of Reports from the Mediterranean and European Theaters of Operations Received from the Allied Military Government, 1943-1946 (National Archives Identifier (NAID) 1552680), are reproduced on 3 rolls of microfilm (Microfilm Publication A3380).  Included are reports, lists, and card files that consist of selected pages of reports received from MFA&A officers in the European and Mediterranean Theaters of Operations; information on private art collections; and extracts of card files related to war damage, art looting, and auctions.
Record Group 165: Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs
The Civil Affairs Division, within the War Department General and Special Staffs (RG 165), contains an abundance of information regarding the Monuments Men programs and operations, and its coordination with the Roberts Commission and the Theaters of Operations.  Most of this information is found in the Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-1949 (NAID 3376702), under Decimal File Number File: CAD 000.4.
Record Group 331: Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II
An important source for the organization and activities of the Monuments Men from 1943 to July 1945 are the records of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II (RG 331).  In the European Theater of Operations the Monuments Men came under the control of SHAEF, primarily under the G-5 Division.  There are three series of records within the G-5 Division that contain important information about the Monuments Men:
  • Numeric Files, August 1943-July 1945 (NAID 610059), under File Number 751.
  • Numeric-Subject Operations Files, 1943-July 1945; (NAID 611522), under File Number 130.
  • All fifteen boxes of the Subject Files, August 1943-1945 (NAID 612714)
The most useful information for research into the Monuments Men and their work in Italy are the Records of the Allied Control Commission for Italy (ACC), Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II (RG 331).  Among the ACC records are the Subject Files, 1943-1947 (NAID 7450631) that is arranged organizationally and thereunder by subject. Within the Subject Files, under File 10000/145 are 506 files on “Monuments & Fine Arts.”  Within the records of each region and province, under the sub-indicator 145 there are additional “Monuments & Fine Arts” files.
Record Group 260: Records of the United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II
Information about the Monuments Men’s activities during the war years and the postwar years in Germany is found in records of the Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone, (Germany) [OMGUS] of the Records of the United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II (RG 260). There are eight groups of OMGUS records that are particularly useful when conducting research about the work of the Monuments Men.  They are all available on microfilm and have been digitized.
  • Records of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) of the Reparations and Restitution Branch, OMGUS, 1945-1951.  These records consist of intelligence reports, interrogation reports, captured documents, and general information regarding German art looting.  Sixteen series are reproduced on 43 rolls of microfilm in the Microfilm Publication M1949.
  • Records Relating to Monuments, Museums, Libraries, Archives, and Fine Arts of the Cultural Affairs Branch, OMGUS, 1946-1949.  These records pertain to the restitution of artworks, investigations of crimes involving art objects, conditions of archives and libraries in the American Zone and their holdings, problems encountered in reopening museums, libraries, and archives and the exchange of experts and exhibits.  The series Records Relating to Monuments, Museums, Libraries, Archives, and Fine Arts(NAID 2570648) is reproduced on 14 rolls of microfilm in the Microfilm Publication M1921.
  • Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): OMGUS Headquarters Records, 1938-1951.These records consist of intelligence reports, interrogation reports, captured documents, and general information regarding German art looting. They also include general records, activity reports, and restitution and custody receipts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section as distributed to the Headquarters of Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone (Germany) [OMGUS]. Three series are reproduced on 45 rolls of microfilm in the Microfilm Publications M1941A and M1941B.
  • Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Munich Central Collecting Point, 1945-1951. These records contain administrative files, property cards, and photographs of artworks and of activities from the Munich Central Collecting Point during the period 1945-1951.  Included are also intelligence reports, interrogation reports, captured documents, and general information regarding German art looting.  Ten series of textual records and two groups of photographic records are reproduced on 334 rolls of microfilm in Microfilm Publications M1946A and M1946B.
  • Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Marburg Central Collecting Point, 1945-1949.  These records consist of general administrative files, Marburg Central Collecting Point property accessions, the directory of Marburg Central Collecting Point property released to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, and photographs. Three series of textual records and one series of photographic records are reproduced on 28 rolls of microfilm in Microfilm Publication M1948.
  • Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, 1945-1952.  These records contain administrative files, photographs of artworks, and property cards from the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point during the period 1945-1952.  Also included are intelligence reports, interrogation reports, captured documents, and general information regarding German art looting. Fifteen textual series and one photographic series are reproduced on 117 rolls of microfilm, in Microfilm Publication M1947.
  •  Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946-1951.  These records consist of administrative files, cultural object restitution and custody records, correspondence relating to restitution claims, monthly reports, and photographs of library bookplates and markings.  Four textual series and three photographic record series are reproduced on 13 rolls of microfilm, in Microfilm Publication M1942.
  • Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Selected Microfilm Reproductions and Related Records, 1945-1949 A3389). This series consists of 76 rolls of microfilm containing selected files from the restitution records of the central collecting points, along with a number of documents and manuscripts temporarily in State Department custody after the central collecting points of the Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone (Germany) [OMGUS] were closed. A copy of the original microfilm was transferred to the National Archives from the State Department with the central collecting point files.
  • Among the records of the U.S. Allied Commission for Austria (USACA), the most useful records relating to the Monuments Men are Records of the Monuments and Fine Arts Branch of the U.S. Allied Commission for Austria (USACA) Section, 1945-1950. The records were microfilmed as Microfilm Publication M1927.  On the 14 rolls of this microfilm publication are reproduced the individual claims processed by and general records of the Monuments and Fine Arts Branch.
Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer
Photographs related to the Monuments Men and their activities, besides those noted above in Record Group 239, are contained in the Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (RG 111).  The photographs are contained in the series Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, 1754-1954 (Local Identifier: 111-SC; NAID 530707), and are indexed by the series Index to U.S. Army Signal Corps Black-and-White Photographs in Series 111-SC, ca. 1900-ca. 1981(Local Identifier: 111-SCY; NAID: 531476). The series titled U.S. Army Signal Corps Photographs of Military Activity During World War II and the Korean Conflict, 1941-1954 (Local Identifier: 111-SCA; NAID 531473) contains two albums of photographs numbered 5446 and 5447 selected by the Signal Corps as the best representation of significant subjects and subtopics in the photograph collection (111-SC).  Fifteen of the photographs selected from the two albums in Series 111-SCA areavailable online.

M. SGT Harold Maus of Scranton, PA is pictured with the Durer engraving, found among other art treasures at Merkers. 5/13/45. 111-SC-374661
Office of Strategic Services
One group of Monuments Men served with the Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU).  This unit created detailed, consolidated, and final reports containing information collected during interrogations of individuals engaged in Nazi art looting activities.  Copies of these reports are scattered among various records groups.  A complete set of the reports were microfilmed and are available in Microfilm Publication M1782, OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit Reports, 1945-46.  Many copies of the ALIU reports and correspondence related to the reports can be found in the records: Subject Files (NAID 1537311), Detailed Interrogation Reports (NAID 1537319), and Consolidated Interrogation Reports(NAID 1537337) of the Roberts Commission (RG 239).  In both instances the records have been digitized and are available online
In this post, we have tried to provide the most useful series one would first review in undertaking research into the Monuments Men.  It should be noted that there are other series within the Record Groups mentioned above as well as in other Record Groups at the National Archives in College Park that contain records relating to the Monuments Men.
Please consult NARA’s webpage on Records Related to Nazi Era Cultural Property for more information on NARA holdings relating to the Monuments Men.  Some of the records are available in digitized form in the Holocaust Era Assets Collection on

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U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977

English: Mao's official portrait at Tiananmen ...
English: Mao's official portrait at Tiananmen gate 中文: 天安门上的毛泽东官方画像 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977:

Washington, DC, March 27, 2014 – In February 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted 300,000 State Department telegrams from 1977 — the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration — on its Access to Archival Databases system. This posting is another step in carrying out the commitment that NARA and the State Department have made to putting on-line major State Department document databases and indexes as they are declassified. The 1977 telegrams cover the gamut of issues of the day: human rights on both sides of the Cold War line, U.S.-Soviet relations, China, NATO issues, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis, African affairs, a variety of diplomatic and security relationships around the world from Latin American to Southeast Asia, and issues of growing concern, such as women in development. The last release of on-line State Department material — telegrams and other records for 1976 — was in January 2010. Meeting the requirements of the Privacy Act, budgetary problems, and a complex declassification process prolonged the review and release of the 1977 material.
NARA's mass posting of State Department telegrams began in 2006 when it uploaded nearly 320,000 declassified telegrams from 1973 and 1974. During the following years, NARA posted hundreds of thousands of telegrams from 1975 and 1976, bringing the total to nearly a million. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) search engine permits searches for documents on a year-to-year basis, but in 2012 Wikileaks usefully repackaged the telegram databases by aggregating them, making it possible to search through all of telegrams at once.
The National Archives has not publicized this or previous diplomatic telegram releases so the National Security Archive is stepping in to the breach to alert researchers and to offer some interesting examples of the new material. Some key documents are already available in the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, but there is more material than the FRUS editors can use on many topics. A stroll through the AAD search engine produces absorbing results. Among the highlights from the search conducted by the editor:
  • During Jimmy Carter's first year, U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington wondered about Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's state of health and its implications for Moscow-Washington relations, which were already complicated by disagreements over strategic arms control and human rights policy. In an exchange of telegrams State Department intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow argued over the former's view that Brezhnev's health problems meant that he was "no longer in command of all aspects of Soviet policy." For the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), even if Brezhnev was losing control, he could still be a channel of communication, not unlike Mao Zedong's declining years where "we had more success with Mao's slobbering and shambling through critical meetings with U.S. representatives …than we have had since Mao's passing." Disagreeing with that assessment, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon acknowledged that Brezhnev "suffers from a variety of physical ailments" but he "is still in control."
  • When two senior U.S. officials met with South Korean dictator General Park Chung Hee in 1977 to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they brought up human rights problems. The detention of dissidents arrested at Myeongdong Cathedral in 1976 was one issue that concerned the White House but Park was reluctant to take a lenient approach because it would "encourage defendants to violate Korean law again."
  • According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand on the situation in Cambodia and the status of organized resistance against the Khmer Rouge, two informants declared that "the fruit of Khmer Rouge rule might well be the extinction of the Cambodian race." While the Khmer Rouge had continued "to eliminate anyone associated with the former regime," the "greatest threat to life in Cambodia" was disease and famine. The recent rice harvest had been good but the regime was stockpiling and exporting the grain.
  • A telegram on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and an influential figure in the South African National Party, Cornelius ("Connie") Petrus Mulder, who was "more liberal" but did not want to get "out in front of agreed policy on apartheid." Young conveyed the message that the administration sought "progressive transformation of South Africa toward majority rule" and the discussion covered the range of regional issues as well as the Young's argument about the possibility of reconciliation based on the "sharing of economic benefits."
  • In mid-1977, the Temple University biologist Niu Man-Chiang was visiting Beijing and met with Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping in the Wade-Giles transliteration), who, after very difficult years during the Cultural Revolution, was again holding top-level positions. Deng claimed that he "was in charge of two things: science and the military," but kept bringing the discussion back to economic policy, especially solving the problem of "feeding a growing population," for which he proposed restricting births and growing more food.
The release includes telegrams at many levels of classification, from "Unclassified" and "Official Use Only" to "Confidential" and "Secret." Moreover, telegrams with a variety of handling restrictions are available, including "Limdis" [limited distribution], "Exdis" [exclusive distribution], and "Nodis" [no distribution except with permission], as well as "Noforn" [no foreign nationals] and "STADIS" [State Department distribution]. Unlike the previous telegram releases, the one for 1977 includes the "nodis" items and also the closely-held cables with the "Cherokee" distribution control, usually reserved for messages involving the secretary of state and senior White House officials.
The downside of the 1977 release is that nearly 60,000 telegrams have been exempted altogether, about 19.5 percent of the total for the year. This means that thousands of documents will remain classified for years; even if persistent researchers deluge NARA with requests they will take years to process under present budgetary limitations. Yet, 19.5 percent is close to the same exemption rate for the previous two years: 23 percent for 1976 and 19 percent for 1975. The specific reasons for the withdrawal of a given document are not given; according to information on the Web site, they are withdrawn variously for national security reasons, statutory exemptions, or privacy. No doubt specific statutory exemptions such as the CIA Act and the Atomic Energy Act play a role, which makes one wonder how many exempted documents concern such things as obsolete nuclear stockpile locations that are among the U.S. government's dubious secrets. Moreover, given the endemic problem of over-classification at the Pentagon, it is possible that the Defense Department erroneously classified some information, for example, telegrams relating to NATO's Nuclear Planning Group.
The collection of telegrams is only a segment of the State Department record for that year; still to be declassified and processed for 1977 is the index to the P-reels, the microfilmed record of the non-telegram paper documentation. Moreover, top secret telegrams are not yet available for any year since 1973 and collections of "Nodis" telegrams from the mid-1970s remain unavailable. No doubt, NARA's inadequate funding is an important cause of delay. OMB and Congress have kept NARA on an austerity budget for years; this is a serious problem, which directly damages the cause of greater openness for government records. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), the NARA budget has been declining since FY 2009, despite the agency's ever-growing responsibility for billions of pages of paper and electronic records. Consistent with the policy of forced austerity, OMB has cut NARA's budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million.
At the current rate it will be years before all the telegrams before all telegrams and other material for the 1970s, much less the 1980s, are on-line at AAD. While the State Department has moved forward in reviewing telegrams from the 1980s, its reviewers need to catch up with the "Nodis" and top secret central files from the mid-1970s and 1977 before they get too far ahead of themselves. As for the telegrams for 1978 and 1979, according to recent reports, they have been fully reviewed for declassification and physically transferred to NARA. When they will become available is not clear. They may have to go through a review for privacy information by NARA, for example, of material concerning visa applications. That was a major element contributing to the delay in the release of the 1977 telegrams. Such a review is justifiable, such as when social security numbers are at issue; certainly protecting private information deserves special care. Nevertheless, there is concern, even among NARA staffers, that the privacy review process may be becoming too extensive (e.g., excluding old mailing addresses). More needs to be learned about criteria used for the privacy review.
Note: As in the previous openings, some telegrams are missing for technological reasons. Over the years, when IT specialists migrated the telegram collections from one electronic medium to another some records were lost. Such missing records, of which there are over 3,800 for 1977 are indicated by this wording: "telegram text for this mrn [message reference number] is unavailable." That does not mean that all are gone for good; some copies will show up in embassy files or presidential libraries. Moreover, copies can often be found in P-reel microfilm collections at the State Department and the National Archives, depending on the years. The "message attribution" information appended to such documents [an example] includes the microfilm numbers that can be used for requesting copies.
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

U.S. covered up massive PCB contamination at Okinawa base

English: US military bases in Okinawa Prefectu...
English: US military bases in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan 日本語: 沖縄県の米軍基地 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A report this month reveals that the U.S. Air Force has covered up massive PCB contamination at its Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, since the late 1980s. The contamination far exceeded safety levels.
U.S. military officials did not report the contamination to Japanese authorities, and did nothing to alleviate the contamination.
Revelation of the PCB cover-up follows a furor among both U.S. service members and Okinawans over of theunearthing of 83 barrels containing dioxins and other toxic chemicals, including barrels labeled Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Agent Orange, on land formerly part of the Kadena base that is now the Okinawa City soccer field. And the two issues come on top of already widespread Japanese opposition to the heavy U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemical mixtures that were commonly used in electrical equipment, oil, insulation and other products before being banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration in 1979 because of their toxicity. According to the EPA, "PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system." PCBs in the environment do not go away - they continue to pose health risks for decades, "cycling between air, water, and soil," the EPA says. They can spread over long distances, and can be absorbed into food crops and by small animals and fish.
Soil tests at the contaminated site showed PCB concentrations of 2,290 parts per million (ppm). That is far above the peak level of 750 ppm found at some of the most contaminated toxic Superfund cleanup sites in the U.S.
According to its own documents, the Air Force did not report the contamination at the time because of concerns that it might damage election chances of politicians who supported the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, in upcoming prefectural assembly elections in 1988.
The documents were recently leaked to Japan Times reporter Jon Mitchell, who has extensively covered toxic pollution at U.S. bases in Okinawa.
An internal Air Force action plan dated Dec. 1, 1987 expressed fear that, if the story got out, conservative politicians in Okinawa would feel compelled "at least in appearance, to put pressure on USFJ [U.S. Forces Japan] commanders and demand answers to tough questions about the incident."
Noting that "The potential for soil contamination at sites on other USFJ installations on Okinawa exists," the plan also expressed concern that U.S. and Japanese officials would be "pressured to test soil samples from high-risk sites ... at all USFJ installations."
But the action plan's author, First Lt. Bob Mccarty, a public affairs officer, concluded that transparency would be the best policy for the U.S. He recommended that U.S. officials brief the Okinawa provincial governor and mayors in the affected areas about the contamination.
An accompanying cover memo from McCarty's superior, Lt. Col. Robert Winkelmann, says, "In order to avoid embarrassment and accusations of a 'cover up,' it is critical that we rapidly forward this information to Japanese government officials and try to minimize the 'damage' which will inevitably result."
These recommendations apparently were ignored.
Dr. Masami Kawamura, director of environment policy and justice at the Citizens Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, said the PCB contamination was actually first revealed by a Japanese nongovernmental organization in 1992. In an email response to an inquiry from this reporter, Dr. Kawamura said she was "overwhelmed" by the extent of the PCB contamination. She said she felt "strong resentment" toward the U.S. (and the Japanese government) for covering up this "significant information for our health, safety and environment," for "their political reasons."
Okinawans have had long-standing concerns about contamination stemming from U.S. military bases.
A few examples:
    In the 1990s, in Onna, a village in central Okinawa, "high levels of mercury, cadmium and PCBs have hampered plans to redevelop former U.S. military land" that was returned Japan in 1995.
    In 2008, in Yomitan village, "levels of arsenic 120 times over the legal limit were found on former U.S.-controlled land."
    In 2013, traces of PCBs nearly nine times higher than normal were discovered in wild mongoose tested near the U.S. Futenma Air Station and Makiminato Service Area (Camp Kinser).
    And the town of Chatan, which borders the Kadena Air Base, "has recently been forced to postpone plans to widen roads onto former (U.S.) military land due to the discovery of dangerous levels of lead."
      The report of the 25-year-long PCB contamination cover-up is likely to "increase Okinawan people's concerns" over base contamination and their right to be informed, Dr. Kawamura said.
      "To get the truth," Okinawa City has been overseeing the Japanese government's investigation and cross-checking test findings, she said. "We should hold the governments of Japan and the U.S. accountable and insist on more transparency."
      They should acknowledge their responsibility in the PCB contamination, Dr. Kawamura said, even "though more than 25 years has passed" since the contamination was first discovered.
      Photo: Entrance to the U.S. Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. Alan Berning CC

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      The WIPP problem, and what it means for defense nuclear waste disposal

      Labels on the Outside of Arriving TRUPACT-II S...
      Labels on the Outside of Arriving TRUPACT-II Shipping Packages Tell Waste Handlers What Kind of Waste is Contained Inside. The Labels Include the Type of Package, Radioactive Hazard, Whether There is Hazardous Waste Inside, and the Actual Weight of the Loaded TRUPACT-II (Shown Left). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

      The WIPP problem, and what it means for defense nuclear waste disposal

      Robert Alvarez

      “It’s a surprise when there are no surprises," a cleanup worker told me a few years ago at the Hanford site in Washington state, once the world’s largest producer of plutonium for nuclear weapons and now home to a massive effort to stop leaking nuclear waste tanks from poisoning the Columbia River. This maxim can hold painfully true for a variety of events assigned an extremely small chance of happening. On February 4, 2014, assumptions of very low probability crumbled at the Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, when a fire in a large salt truck raged for hours, deep underground. 
      Ten days later, an even more unlikely accident happened: Wastes containing plutonium blew through the WIPP ventilation system, traveling 2,150 feet to the surface, contaminating at least 17 workers, and spreading small amounts of radioactive material into the environment. 
      What WIPP does, and what it contains. In 1979, Congress authorized the design and construction of WIPP, planned to be a repository for a class of waste known as transuranic (TRU)--that is, radioactive elements heavier than uranium on the periodic chart, including plutonium, americium, curium and neptunium—and generated by the US defense effort after 1970. A bedded salt formation was chosen as the site of the project because of its presumed long-term stability and self-sealing properties. After several long-running legal challenges, Congress authorized the opening of WIPP in 1992 and set a cap of 175,000 cubic meters of waste to be disposed. Seven years later, WIPP began to receive wastes.More than a month after the fire, WIPP remains closed, and what happened underground remains unclear. It is not known whether the leak and the truck fire are connected; a waste-drum explosion or the collapse of a roof of one of the facility's storage chambers could be to blame for the radiation event. As Energy Department contractors send robots to explore WIPP's caverns, the future of the world’s only operating high-hazard radioactive waste repository is uncertain.     "Events like this simply should never occur. One event is far too many,” Ryan Flynn, New Mexico’s environment secretary, said immediately after the accident. The US Energy Department, which oversees WIPP, views the fire and leak as simply small bumps in the long road of running a long-term waste repository. “Without question, there is absolutely not an iota of doubt …. We will re-open,” David Klaus, the Energy Department deputy undersecretary, told the public in Carlsbad on March 8. But less than two weeks later, New Mexico seemed to have the last word on the immediate response to the accident, when it cancelled its permit for additional disposal at WIPP
      The end of the Cold War and the downsizing of the US nuclear weapons complex expanded WIPP’s mission to include excess plutonium. Instead of just contaminated rags, clothing and equipment, in 1998 the Energy Department decided to dispose of plutonium, originally part of the US strategic stockpile, from the now-closed Rocky Flats site. Some 3.5 tons, or more than 70 percent of the plutonium stored in WIPP, was originally meant to be used in nuclear weapons
      WIPP now holds more than 171,000 waste containers containing approximately 4.9 metric tons of plutonium. With a total cost that the Energy Department estimates at$7.2 billion, WIPP employs some 800 workers. The site involves an ongoing mining operation in which salt is loaded on trucks and conveyed to the surface, to other trucks that dump it in a disposal area. The floor space of the mine is designed to be substantially larger than the Pentagon’s. Waste packages are disposed in a 100-acre area that includes seven “rooms—each with a footprint as large as three football fields—carved out of the salt formation in the deep mine
      The toxicity of plutonium and other transuranics was known to be very high in the early days of nuclear weapons production. But official recognition of the waste hazards they pose did not come until the early 1970’s, when the governor of Idaho threatened to halt waste shipments from the Rocky Flats plutonium-component plant in Colorado to what was then known as the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for disposal—effectively disrupting weapons production. Citizens and political leaders of the state, fearful that the wastes could reach the state’s largest fresh water aquifer, became alarmed when, after a major fire at Rocky Flats in 1969, an unprecedented amount oftransuranic waste was sent to Idaho for shallow land burial. By 1973, Atomic Energy Commission chair Dixie Lee Ray promised to dispose of these wastes in a geological repository. 
      Plutonium 239 is a major safety concern because of its high radiation levels and long half-life—24,100 years. About 200,000 times more radioactive than the commonest naturally occurring uranium, plutonium 239 emits alpha particles as its principal form of radiation. Plutonium inhalation can cause permanent lung damage and even death. When taken in the body, microscopic amounts can penetrate deep into the lungs and deposit, via the bloodstream, in the liver, bones, and other organs.
      WIPP receives TRU wastes generated after 1970 and, therefore, represents only a partial solution to the United States military nuclear waste problem. Before 1970, more than 2,000 kilograms of plutonium were dumped into the ground as “low-level” waste at many locations across the country. Because of the high costs for removal and geological isolation of that waste, the Energy Department considers pre-1970 TRU wastes to have been disposed “in-place.” The quantity of pre-1970 plutonium currently in the soil at Energy Department sites is some 1,300 times more than is permitted to leak into the human environment from WIPP, 10,000 years after the repository is closed. With nearly half of these wastes in the soil at Hanford, the Energy Department plans for a significant part of that site to become a de facto “national sacrifice zone.” 
      The preponderance of the waste placed in WIPP is considered “contact handled,” meaning that it can be prepared for disposal using conventional excavation and processing practices with a manageably small risk of radiation exposure. Since 1970, tens of thousands of such contact-handled TRU waste containers—ranging from steel drums to cardboard boxes—have been stored under just a few feet feet of soil at several Energy Department sites.
      But there is also a large inventory of “remote-handled” waste that contains highly radioactive transuranics and other isotopes. This type of waste requires heavy shielding and remotely operated equipment to protect workers from severe exposure. Remote-handled packages can emit potentially lethal doses of radiation as large as 1,000 rem per hour.
      What happened at WIPP and why? The mishaps at WIPP prompted several ongoing investigations and led to the removal and demotion of a contract manager employed by the URS Corporation. The fire is believed to have started when diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid leaked inside a truck's engine compartment. The fire consumed the driver’s compartment and the truck's large front tires, which produced copious amounts of thick black smoke, prompting 86 workers to be evacuated. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, and another seven were treated at the site. Workers have not been allowed back in the mine since. The fire occurred a little less than half a mile from an air monitor alarm set off by the radiation leak, which was located near the latest room being filled with wastes from Idaho, Savannah River, and Los Alamos sites.
      The Energy Department investigation report of March 14 concluded the fire could have been prevented had the contractor and Energy Department site managers bothered, after being repeatedly warned, to remove a buildup of flammable material in the mine, to regularly maintain trucks and equipment, and to correct emergency response deficiencies.  Moreover, the automatic fire suppression system had been turned off before the fire. 
      In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization that advises the executive branch about health and safety issues at Energy Department defense nuclear facilities, reported that WIPP "does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations. ... Of particular concern is the failure … to recognize the potential impact of a fire on WIPP's ability to process waste, and ultimately on the ability to reduce inventories of transuranic (TRU) waste at other [Energy Department] sites.” 
      Whether the radiation leak and the truck fire inside WIPP are connected remains an unanswered question. Among other possible causes of the leak, a waste drum explosion is now under consideration. Energy Department sites have experienced numerous nuclear-waste container fires and explosions through the years. Waste drums containing transuranics generate hydrogen, methane, and other volatile gases which, if unvented, can build up and, if ignited, explode.  The most recent drum fire occurred at Los Alamos in November 2008. To mitigate potential explosion hazards from leaking drums, the Energy Department is required to install 12-foot-thick blast walls at WIPP after a room is closed.
      Concerns have also been raised about the possibility of a storage room ceiling or wall collapse. Eventually, when WIPP closes, which is projected to occur sometime after 2030, the salt formation is expected to slowly collapse and seal off the drums of waste. But this was not expected to happen until long after the repository is filled and closed. If a collapse has already occurred, just 15 years after the facility opened, it will raise additional questions about WIPP's ability to ensure engineered barriers and institutional controls will work for a 10,000 year period.  
      Nowhere else to go? There are more questions than answers as the Energy Department and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board investigate what happened at WIPP and why. Robotic equipment has been sent into the facility, to be followed in the next several weeks by inspectors wearing protective gear, who will ascertain the extent of contamination before a decision is made on whether to send workers back underground. If there is residual contamination, workers may need protective clothing and respiratory protection. Cleanup of a contaminated underground radioactive waste storage site has never been attempted. It could well prove to be daunting.
      At least 66,200 cubic meters of transuranic waste sit at Energy Department sites, awaiting shipment to WIPP. The Energy Department is also considering disposal of 5 tons of excess plutonium now at the Savannah River Site in WIPP. Over the past decade, the department has also been seeking to use WIPP to dispose of the contents of several high-level radioactive waste tanks at Hanford by reclassifying those contents as transuranic waste. WIPP is being eyed as a final resting place for tens of tons of plutonium from dismantled weapons as well, because the Energy Department is backing away from the $30 billion price tag now attached to a plan for mixing the plutonium with uranium and using that mixed-oxide to fuel nuclear power plants.
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