Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

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Description and Current Mission

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation's only deep geologic long-lived radioactive waste repository. Located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP permanently isolates defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste 2,150 feet underground in an ancient salt formation.

WIPP was constructed for disposal of defense-generated TRU waste from DOE sites around the country. TRU waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. The waste is permanently disposed of in rooms mined in an underground salt bed layer over 2000 feet from the surface.

TRU waste began accumulating in the 1940s with the beginning of the nation's nuclear defense program. As early as the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU 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 1960s, 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 left a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.

In 1979, Congress authorized WIPP, and the facility was constructed during the 1980s. Congress limited WIPP to the disposal of defense-generated TRU wastes in the 1992 Land Withdrawal Act. In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certified WIPP for safe, long-term disposal of TRU wastes.

On March 26, 1999, the first waste shipment arrived at WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

WIPP's disposal rooms are nearly a half mile below the surface (2,150 feet). By comparison, the Empire State Building is only 1,454 feet high.

National Academy of Scientists Report

Review of the Department of Energy's Plans for Disposal of Surplus Plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant 2020

STOP FOREVER WIPP!

Department of Energy seeks to modify N.M. plant’s nuclear waste permit

Dragging out WIPP’s operations decades past the original 20-year agreement violates the social contract made with New Mexicans, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

WIPP is being equipped to take the waste that will be generated from production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, Kovac said.

“It [WIPP] was never really suppose to do that,” Kovac said.

Scott Wyland swyland@sfnewmexican.com | Santa Fe New Mexican May 17, 2021

Federal officials say a new air shaft is needed at the nuclear waste disposal site in Southern New Mexico to keep workers safe and run more efficiently.

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Watch this video from the Stop Forever WIPP coalition: “When is a shaft more than a shaft?” dispelling the idea that an expansion of WIPP will mostly impact the South Eastern part of New Mexico; The new waste targeted for WIPP would be re-processed at Los Alamos. It also dispels the idea that targeting NM for waste disposal has nothing to do with our minority majority population.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant aims to expand underground facility to hold nuclear waste

“WIPP is supposed to be limited. The state did not agree to 12 panels.”

By:  | currentargus.com April 15, 2021

A plan to build two new areas to dispose of nuclear waste began taking shape at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after the U.S. Department of Energy published a report on the feasibility of adding an 11th and 12th waste panel to the underground nuclear waste repository.

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WIPP Updates

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant needs more space to dispose of nuclear waste, officials say

“..A 10-year renewal of the permit itself was underway after expiring last year and Don Hancock, nuclear waste program manager at watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said any modifications to the permit should be included in the full renewal or wait until after its approval.

He said the DOE aimed to “piecemeal” an expansion of WIPP operations and its lifetime to avoid a discussion on broadening the facility’s purpose and keeping it operational indefinitely.

The current permit called for WIPP to be closed by 2024, but officials speculated it could take as long as until 2050 to complete its mission.”

BY: Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus

More underground space is needed to complete the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to dispose of nuclear waste, contend WIPP officials during a Monday public meeting.

The U.S. Department of Energy was underway with a permit modification request (PMR) that would amend the DOE’s permit with the State of New Mexico to allow for the mining of two new panels where waste would be disposed of along with drifts connecting the panels to the rest of the underground repository.

At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste consisting of clothing items and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities at DOE sites across the country is disposed of via burying in an underground salt deposit.

To achieve this, panels consisting of seven rooms each are mined about 2,000 feet underground where drums of the waste are emplaced, and the salt gradually collapses to permanently entomb the waste.

But due maintenance issues and a three-year shutdown of underground operations in 2014 following an accidental radiological release, portions of three of panels were left unusable and the DOE hoped to mine new panels to finishing burying the waste.

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Rep. Chris Chandler and NMED Sec. James Kenney Unhappy With Progress Of Waste Shipment From LANL

“The poor performance at LANL I think is exactly why we sued the Department of Energy because we believe the DOE and contractor are in violation of the Consent Order, we need to correct that and from a policy perspective, the Department of Energy has prioritized over New Mexico, cleanup at Savannah River, cleanup at Idaho National Labs, cleanup at all these other places and that is unacceptable to the state of New Mexico since we are the only state that holds the geologic repository known as WIPP,” – New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney

BY MAIRE O’NEILL maire@losalamosreporter.com | The Los Alamos Reporter June 8, 2021

District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney on Monday both criticized the Department of Energy’s lack of progress in shipping waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad. Their comments were made during the Legislative Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Committee meeting. Chandler is the vice chair of that committee.

Eletha Trujillo, Bureau Chief of the Hazardous Waste Planning Division at the state Energy, Minerals and National Resources Department, earlier in the meeting noted that there are two groups from LANL that ship waste – the DOE Environmental Management group and the DOE National Security Administration group.

“The DOE NNSA group had some safety violations back in February – the spark incident that occurred with a barrel at Los Alamos and so they have not been able to do any shipments. They do have material, but they’re not able to ship anything because they’re under a safety hold by the NRC. When they complete their plan and they get approval again from the NRC then the NNSA will be able to ship again. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. Typically the NNSA tends to have more safety violations than Environmental Management,” Trujillo said.

She added that EM has shipped their material and does not have enough material for a full load.

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New company sought to operate Waste Isolation Pilot Plant under $3 billion contract

Little change to workforce, operations expected

Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus |

A new primary contractor could be coming to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as the U.S. Department of Energy sought bids from prospective contractors for the management and operations of the nuclear waste site near Carlsbad.

The current holder of the contract Nuclear Waste Partnership began its work at WIPP in 2012 and its contract will expire in September 2021, with an extension carrying the contract through September 2022.

At that point, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Amentum – NWP’s parent company – Keith Wood said the contractor’s lifetime would end.

“NWP was established to perform the current mission for the current contract,” Wood said. “That company will not be bidding on the next contract. Their sole mission was to perform the work under the current contract.”

Wood declined to comment on if any Amentum-led subsidiaries would bid on the new contract to operate WIPP.

The four-year contract will include six, one-year extension options and was valued at $3 billion over a 10-year performance period.

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Department of Energy seeks to modify N.M. plant’s nuclear waste permit

Dragging out WIPP’s operations decades past the original 20-year agreement violates the social contract made with New Mexicans, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

WIPP is being equipped to take the waste that will be generated from production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, Kovac said.

“It [WIPP] was never really suppose to do that,” Kovac said.

Scott Wyland swyland@sfnewmexican.com | Santa Fe New Mexican May 17, 2021

Federal officials say a new air shaft is needed at the nuclear waste disposal site in Southern New Mexico to keep workers safe and run more efficiently.

Continue reading

Watch this video from the Stop Forever WIPP coalition: “When is a shaft more than a shaft?” dispelling the idea that an expansion of WIPP will mostly impact the South Eastern part of New Mexico; The new waste targeted for WIPP would be re-processed at Los Alamos. It also dispels the idea that targeting NM for waste disposal has nothing to do with our minority majority population.

WIPP completes maintenance outage, intends to up shipments of nuclear waste post-pandemic

Reinhard Knerr, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office said WIPP will resume accepting shipments of low-level transuranic waste from DOE sites around the country and will continue to emplace the waste for final disposal in WIPP’s underground mine.

By:  | currentargus.com April 26, 2021

Shipments and disposal of nuclear waste resumed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after a two-month pause in the repository’s primary operations to allow personnel to complete several maintenance projects underground and on the surface.

WIPP completed 97 projects during the maintenance outage which ran from Feb. 15 to April 15, upgrading infrastructure throughout the facility.

The work involved mine operations, waste handling, hoisting, ground control, safety and engineering, and the break included a site-wide power outage to allow electrical work to be completed safely.

Continue reading

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant aims to expand underground facility to hold nuclear waste

“WIPP is supposed to be limited. The state did not agree to 12 panels.”

By:  | currentargus.com April 15, 2021

A plan to build two new areas to dispose of nuclear waste began taking shape at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after the U.S. Department of Energy published a report on the feasibility of adding an 11th and 12th waste panel to the underground nuclear waste repository.

Continue reading

DOE Planning to Increase Down-Blended Plutonium Shipments to Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Savannah River Site is the third largest shipper of waste to WIPP, with 1,679 as of April 3, per the latest records from WIPP.

By:  | currentargus.com April 7, 2021

Federal nuclear waste managers are planning to ramp up shipments of plutonium from a site in South Carolina for final disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) began preparing equipment at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina used to package and inspect drums of the waste before shipping to WIPP where it will be permanently disposed of in the repository’s underground salt formation.

The plutonium waste will be inspected to verify that it meets the criteria required for emplacement at WIPP, which is used to dispose of low-level transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste – mostly clothing items and equipment radiated during nuclear activities.

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Checking in: WIPP maintenance work ‘on schedule’ during 2-month operations pause

At WIPP, the waste is delivered from facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Energy around the country and buried in an underground salt deposit which gradually collapses and encases the waste permanently.

By:  | currentargus.com March 15, 2021

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant halted waste emplacement and handling operations for the last month at the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad while an array of maintenance projects was completed.

The facility, which permanently disposes of low-level transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste about 2,000 feet underground, planned the outage for about two months until April 14 to allow workers to complete routine upgrades to its infrastructure and other needed work.

During the two-month pause, WIPP planned on 97 activities from six departments including mine operations, waste handling, hoisting, work control, safety and engineering.

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Staffing, scheduling problems imperil projects at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, report says

Within the report, the GAO pointed to “significant” staffing shortages at WIPP that could prevent WIPP from completing construction projects needed to increase the facility’s space for waste disposal and allow for more workers in the underground to mine and emplace waste simultaneously.

By:  | currentargus.com March 11, 2021

Staffing and other problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant continued to be voiced by the federal government’s watchdog agency in a two-year report seeking to identify struggling areas in the government and ways to improve operations.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified the U.S. Department of Energy’s contract and project management at both the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Office of Environmental Management (EM) as one of six areas in its 2021 “High Risk List” that had showed some improvement since the last such report in 2019.

The EM manages WIPP on a federal level as low-level nuclear waste is permanently disposed of in an underground salt bed at the facility near Carlsbad.

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Quotes

There are two problems for our species’ survival – nuclear war and environmental catastrophe – and we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.
– Noam Chomsky