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

The mission of the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition is to stop WIPP expansion and ensure health and safety issues are fully addressed.

Video Presentation on WIPP Expansion - February 5, 2022

STOP FOREVER WIPP!

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WIPP Updates

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant leadership expect nuclear waste site to be open until 2050

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration claims that a little more than half of WIPP’s future capacity will be reserved for future plutonium pit bomb core production. Further, those new radioactive wastes would be given priority over existing legacy cleanup wastes.

To quote:

“The combined TRU waste (1,151 m3) generated over 50 years would be 57,550 m3, which would account for 53 percent of the projected available capacity at WIPP. In addition, use of WIPP capacity for national security missions such as pit production would be given priority in the allocation process.”

DOE/EIS-0236-S4-SA-02, December 2019, Final Supplement Analysis of the Complex Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, p. 65, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2020/01/f70/final-supplement-analysis-eis-0236-s4-sa-02-complex-transformation-12-2019.pdf

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Courtesy of WIPP

NUCLEAR WATCH NEW MEXICO IS OPPOSED TO THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO BEING THE NATION’S LARGEST PLUTONIUM WASTE PRODUCER AS WELL AS THE NATION’S ONLY PLUTONIUM WASTE DUMP.

BY: Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus | February 25, 2022

Nuclear waste will continue being buried at a facility near Carlsbad for the coming decades, as far into the future as 2050 or 2080.

In preparation for that continued mission of disposing of the nation’s transuranic (TRU) waste – mostly clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant saw myriad projects at the site aimed at increasing airflow and ensuring enough space is available for the waste.

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COVID-19 an obstacle for nuclear waste disposal at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, officials say

Officials plan to ramp up operations as pandemic hoped to subside
“With continued increases in shipments, WIPP officials said they hoped to fill the seventh disposal panel by the middle of 2022, planning to begin emplacing waste in the eighth and final panel as mining the area was completed last year.”

Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus January 31, 2022 currentargus.com

COVID-19 continued to strain operations to dispose of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, officials said, slowing shipments accepted at the repository near Carlsbad last year.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant struggles to control costs, per annual performance evaluation

“Conducted by the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO), the evaluation called for improvements in cost control, schedule and risk management, along with work planning and control processes.”

Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus January 12, 2022 currentargus.com

Lingering struggles to complete construction projects on schedule while controlling costs at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant factored into the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual fee allotment to primary contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP).

NWP earned 67 percent of its potential, performance-based fee – about $10.9 million of about $16.2 million available to the contractor in Fiscal Year 2021.

About $7.6 million of the fee was awarded for specific task incentives with $10.9 million available, and the other $3.3 million came from the subjective portion of the evaluation from a total offering of $5.3 million.

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Energy Department to spend $15.5M to upgrade route from Los Alamos lab to waste site [WIPP]

“Essentially blessing what DOE was going to have to do anyway in order to expand nuclear weapons activities and waste disposal,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “And once again demonstrated the subservience of our state government to the nuclear weapons industry here in New Mexico.”

By Scott Wyland swyland@sfnewmexican.com Santa Fe New Mexican December 6, 2021 santafenewmexican.com

The N.M. 4 and East Jemez Road intersection in the far northwestern corner of Santa Fe County will be improved as part of a $15.5 million upgrade of routes on which Los Alamos National Laboratory transports nuclear waste to an underground disposal site in Southern New Mexico.

The U.S. Energy Department will spend $3.5 million to improve the intersection, which lies just outside Los Alamos County, and another $12 million to upgrade routes it owns and uses mostly to ship transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, clothing, equipment, soil and other items — to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

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LANL Plans to Address Possibly Exploding Drums Shipped to Texas in 2014

Waste Control Specialists near Andrews TX
Aerial View of Waste Control Specialists (WCS) on the TX/NM state line

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has given itself a Categorical Exclusion (CX) under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the removal, relocation, and examination of transuranic (TRU) waste drums at Waste Control Specialists (WCS). These drums are similar to the ones that forced WIPP to close in 2014. LANL officials decided that formal environmental assessments, with public input, of the movement of the possibly exploding waste drums are not needed.

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Risk of quakes caused by oil, gas in New Mexico rising

“The occurrence of smaller earthquakes began to increase in 2017, when oil and gas boomed in the region, up to about three per day recently. In 2021, records show the region was on track for more than 1,200 earthquakes with magnitudes of 1 to 4.

apnews.com

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Multiple earthquakes were felt earlier this fall in West Texas, leading regulators in that state to designate a seismic response area and call for less wastewater from oil and gas development to be injected in disposal wells.

As more seismic activity was reported closer to the state line, officials in New Mexico have been watching closely and gathering data. Some officials are concerned that as Texas limits the injection of produced water as a means to curb the seismic activity, that could affect producers in New Mexico.

In October, Texas regulators created a second seismic response area just along the border with southeastern New Mexico. Officials pointed to more than a dozen quakes along the state line since Jan. 1, 2020, with six of those reported this fall.

That meant almost half of the heightened seismic activity in the area since last year occurred in the last month, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Texas officials referred to the activity as “unprecedented.”

Michael Hightower, director of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium at New Mexico State University, said it was clear Texas’ earthquake problem was spreading toward New Mexico.

“We know there’s a lot of water coming over from Texas,” he said. “If you inject all that, you’re going to have seismicity problems.”

He said most of the seismicity being observed is due to saltwater disposal wells and possible over-pressurization.

The consortium worked with Texas regulators, Hightower said, aiming to devise technology that could treat produced water and recycle it for uses like agriculture or even drinking water.

Many oil and gas companies already recycle produced water for subsequent fracking operations, but Hightower said expanding the potential for its reuse presents an economic opportunity and a way to address environmental and water scarcity concerns tied to fossil fuels.

“The big issue is how do you reduce the volume of produced water you’re disposing of. That is the exact mission of the consortium,” he said.

New Mexico was targeting a goal of a 30-60% reduction in produced water disposal, Hightower said.

Jason Jennaro is CEO at Breakwater Midstream, a company that transports produced water and treats it. He said the recent seismic activity made finding alternatives to disposal injection more urgent.

With a second commercial-scale water recycling facility, the company estimates it could treat and distribute more than half a million barrels of produced water a day for the Midland Basin.

“Operators are looking for environmentally sustainable alternatives to disposal within these SRAs and seismic clusters, which is why system interconnectivity and commercial recycling is central to sensible stewardship of the water,” Jennaro said.

Regulatory action from the Texas commission, he said, will severely impact operations and force the industry to seek alternatives.

WIPP: Judge upholds change in how nuke waste is counted. Could keep site open to 2050

“We know it’s part of expanding WIPP. We know what DOE is doing but DOE doesn’t want to publicly admit it and the Environment Department doesn’t want to deal with it…The reason the laws have always put limits on WIPP is that the DOE was supposed to be finding locations for other repositories. There is no other repository and that’s why they don’t want to have a limit on what goes into WIPP.” — Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director at Southwest Research and Information Center.

Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus November 15, 2021 currentargus.com

A New Mexico appellate judge upheld a change in how the volume of nuclear waste disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is counted, shifting the repository from being halfway to capacity to only a third full.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy requested to modify its WIPP operating permit with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to change how it counts the amount of waste toward the facility’s statutory limit of 6.2 million cubic feet of transuranic (TRU) waste consisting of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities.

The change was intended to count the inner volume of the waste as opposed to the volume of the outer containers that hold the waste, seeking to avoid counting air between the waste itself and waste drums.

NMED approved the permit modification request (PMR) in 2019, but Albuquerque-based watchdog groups Southwest Research and Information Center and Nuclear Watch New Mexico immediately appealed the decision.

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Proposed plutonium shipments concern New Mexico lawmakers

“The agency has said little overall about its plans, despite the potential hazards, said Cindy Weehler, who co-chairs the watchdog group 285 ALL.

santafenewmexican.com

Proposed plutonium shipments concern New Mexico lawmakers

A panel of state lawmakers expressed concerns Friday about plans to truck plutonium shipments through New Mexico, including Santa Fe’s southern edge, and will send letters to state and federal officials asking for more information on the transports.

Two opponents of the shipments — a Santa Fe County commissioner and a local activist — presented the Department of Energy’s basic plan to the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, provoking a mixture of surprise and curiosity from members.

Several lawmakers agreed transporting plutonium is more hazardous because it is far more radioactive than the transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials — that Los Alamos National Laboratory now ships to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site near Carlsbad.

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WIPP Shipments Stopped Due to Maintenance Problems at Site

Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, “As early as November 2013, Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, began to physically expand the WIPP underground.  The fire and explosion shutdown that work.  It remains evident that NWP is more interested in doubling the size of the WIPP underground and keeping it open forever than doing preventive maintenance.”

CONCERNED CITIZENS FOR NUCLEAR SAFETY October 23, 2021

Due to on-going maintenance problems in the underground disposal facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) requested an extension of time from the New Mexico Environment Department to store waste in the Waste Handling Building.  https://wipp.energy.gov/

The request for a 45-day extension to store 13 shipments of plutonium- contaminated waste comes on the heels of on-going maintenance problems at WIPP [PDF]. On October 14th, 2021, the Environment Department approved the extension to November 30th, 2021 [PDF].  All waste shipments to WIPP had previously been stopped from August 25th until September 30th.

Maintenance problems include ventilation problems on the surface in the Waste Handling Building and managing the floors in the underground. The salt can heave and create uneven surfaces where waste is transported for disposal.

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Nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad sees COVID-19 surge as infections rise in New Mexico

Carlsbad Current-Argus currentargus.com

COVID-19 infections resurged at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in recent weeks as cases of the virus climbed in the communities surrounding the nuclear waste repository in southeast New Mexico.

There were 14 positive cases among workers at the site or associated with the facility reported between Aug. 17 and 31, per the latest report from Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) – WIPP’s primary operations contractor.

In total, WIPP reported as of Aug. 31, there were 25 active cases.

WIPP officials did not report the identities of patients or companies where the infected workers were employed.

All employees at WIPP were encouraged to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, per an NWP news release, and required to wear protective face masks when indoors, vaccinated or not, and social distance when possible.

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