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.
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.
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.