Rocky Mountain Board Holds Annual and Regular Meetings

On June 20, 2018, the Rocky Mountain Low-Level Radioactive Waste Board held both a Regular Meeting and an Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The meetings—which were held at the La Posada de Santa Fe—began at 9:00 a.m.

Regular Meeting Agenda

The following items were on the draft agenda for the Regular Meeting:

  • approval of minutes of the Regular Meeting on June 22, 2017 and Annual Meetings and notice of actions taken at the telephonic meetings on March 7, 2018 and April 30, 2018
  • update from the Clean Harbors Regional Facility
  • update from URENCO USA
  • update from International Isotopes, Inc.
  • discussion of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) Oil and Gas import and export
  • update on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Forum (LLW Forum)
  • update on national developments

•     Executive Director’s report

  • fiscal status/investment summary
  • permit fee revenue for 2017 and 2018
  • expenditure/budget comparison
  • status of volumes authorized for export and disposal in 2017 and 2018

Annual Meeting Agenda

The following items were on the draft agenda for the Annual Meeting:

  • election of Officers
  • consideration of fiscal year 2018-2019 budget
  • consideration of establishment of SEP IRA retirement program

Interested parties and the public were invited to attend the meetings and an opportunity was provided for public comment.

For additional information, please contact Leonard Slosky, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Board, at (303) 825-1912 or lslosky@rmllrwb.us.

DOE Plans to Move Forward with Key WIPP Infrastructure Upgrade

On May 14, 2018, the Office of Environmental Management (EM) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced plans to move forward with a key infrastructure upgrade at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.  According to the announcement, the upgrade will enable increased progress in DOE’s mission to address the environmental legacy of decades of nuclear weapons production and government-sponsored nuclear energy research.

Assistant Energy Secretary for Environmental Management Anne White approved the start of construction for the $288 million underground ventilation system.  The Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) will be key to DOE’s plans to increase shipments of transuranic waste to WIPP from cleanup sites across the DOE complex.

“This will be a significant improvement for WIPP in support of its critical role in our national mission,” said White.  “I am appreciative of the unwavering support from our local, state and federal elected officials and stakeholders at WIPP who have helped to ensure we have proper funding to make infrastructure improvements, like the new ventilation system.”

According to EM, the SSCVS will significantly increase the amount of air available to the underground portion of the WIPP facility.  As a result, DOE will be able to perform transuranic waste emplacement activities simultaneously with facility mining and maintenance operations.  The new ventilation system will also allow for easier replacement and preventative maintenance activities.  EM expects construction of the new ventilation system to be completed by early 2021.

The new ventilation system is one of a number of infrastructure projects planned for WIPP in the coming years to enable the facility to continue to play an integral role in DOE’s cleanup program.  To date, more than 90,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste have been disposed of at WIPP.

Federal and State Officials Attend WIPP Reopening Ceremony

On January 9, 2017, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz and DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) Assistant Secretary Monica Regalbuto joined New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and others to mark the reopening and resumption of waste operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico.  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce and Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway also attended the celebration.

Waste emplacement activities were suspended at WIPP following a waste drum rupture in an underground storage panel and a separate underground fire in early 2014. “The tireless efforts by the workforce, the contractor and federal management and the community to make WIPP a safer place to fulfill its critical mission is a remarkable feat,” said Energy Secretary Moniz.

Overview

On December 23, 2016, DOE and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) authorized WIPP to reopen following almost three years of recovery operations due the early 2014 underground fire and subsequent unrelated fire.  Twelve days later, on January 4, 2017, the Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) began moving waste underground from the Waste Handling Building.

The Waste Handling Building, which contains approximately 40,000 square meters of storage space, was originally intended to store waste before underground disposal at the WIPP facility.  However, it began being used for indefinite storage following the suspension of disposal operations in early 2014.  NMED, which serves as the WIPP facility’s primary state regulator, has set a deadline to clear out the Waste Handling Building by June 30, 2017—although DOE is considering a more ambitious timeframe according to various news outlets.  Transuranic waste stored at the Waste Handling Building must be disposed below ground before WIPP can resume accepting new shipments of nuclear waste from across the DOE nuclear complex.

According to DOE, the WIPP facility is expected to accept approximately five shipments per week once shipments are resumed to the mine.  Prior to the 2014 accidents, the WIPP facility was accepting more than 15 shipments per week.  According to the Department’s 2016 Annual Transuranic Waste Inventory Report, there was approximately 45,000 cubic meters of contact-handled transuranic waste destined for the WIPP facility across 14 sites in the DOE’s nuclear complex.  In addition, there was approximately 2,500 cubic meters of remote-handled transuranic waste at 11 sites. These figures, according to the report, do not include transuranic waste that DOE expects to generate from ongoing and future Department cleanup operations.

In July 2016, DOE approved strict new waste acceptance criteria for the WIPP facility.  DOE sites will not be able to ship waste to the facility unless it meets the new criteria, which has created some challenges in cases where waste was packaged under the old criteria, but will now need to be certified to meet the new criteria.  DOE has not yet announced which sites will ship waste to WIPP first.

Background

Transuranic waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation’s nuclear defense program.  As early as the 1950’s, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended deep disposal of long-lived transuranic radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations, such as deep salt beds.  Sound environmental practices and strict regulations require such wastes to be isolated to protect human health and the environment.

Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable—an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment.  However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.

Throughout the 1960’s, government scientists searched for an appropriate site for radioactive waste disposal, eventually testing a remote desert area of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, evaporation cycles of the ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.

In 1979, Congress authorized the WIPP facility, which was constructed during the 1980’s.  Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated transuranic wastes.  In 1998, EPA certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.

In February 2014, DOE suspended operations at WIPP following an accidental radiation release and unrelated underground fire.  DOE spent nearly three years on recovery operations at an estimated cost of approximately $1.5 billion, including NWP’s management and operations contract.  DOE is still working to return the underground ventilation back up to pre-accident levels, which is expected to push the total bill for the recovery closer to $2 billion.

Additional information is available on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website at http://www.wipp.energy.gov/wipprecovery/recovery.html.