“…At this point Commissioners Hansen and Hamilton walked out as well as several others. Greenwald and others placed green tape over the mouths.
As attendees were being invited to the one-on-one conversations in the next room, Nuclear Watch New Mexico executive director Jay Coghlan shouted out that the 2014 incident that shut down WIPP had not been mentioned during the presentation or the fact that half of WIPP is being reserved for waste from pit production. He called the meeting a “scam”.”
The Los Alamos Reporter sat down late Thursday afternoon with Reinhard Knerr, Manager of the Department of Energy’s Site Office in Carlsbad for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Knerr and Sean Dunagan, President and Project Manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, the contractor operating WIPP, were in Santa Fe to provide an update on WIPP at a public forum Thursday evening.
As background, WIPP is the nation’s only deep geologic repository. Located about 26 miles east of Carlsbad , the facility is authorized to accept transuranic (“TRU”) radioactive waste that is placed 2,150 feet below the surface in a mined bedded salt formation where eight excavated “panels” each with seven rooms and two access drifts lie within some 120 acres that have been mined for the facility. Four shafts connect the underground with the surface and a fifth shaft provides most of the air intake for the underground.
For almost 30 years Knerr has been in the Department of Energy world – first as a contractor and then as a “fed”. He started his career at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, working on nuclear criticality safety and safety bases work. From there he went to several other DOE sites including the Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office in Kentucky and the Y12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. before shifting gears a little bit and moving to WIPP in 2001.
“I gave up my traditional nuclear engineering work and got engaged in waste management. I was working for the transuranic waste program as a waste certification manager. I spent a lot of time working with USEPA in particular as we were trying to streamline the characterization and certification processes they had in place,” Knerr said. After leaving WIPP for Paducah, he returned to New Mexico in July 2020 as the DOE’s WIPP manager.
“I have been leading the federal staff and the contracting team through the COVID pandemic. We’re pushing hard to try to get shipments back to the level that they need to be. We’re continuing to do mining in the underground. Certainly from the perspective of where we need to be in the next few years as well as 10 to 20 years down the road, we’re making sure we have everything configured and moving in that direction,” Knerr said.
He noted that WIPP has continued to increase the number of shipments being accepted. He hopes to accept a dozen more shipment this fiscal year than last year.
“When I first got here, shipments were intermittent from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and we’ve been successful in partnering with the NNSA side of the house so now we’re getting steady state shipments so we should have over 50 shipments from LANL this year. We tried a couple of weeks where we were able to get three shipments out, but what we found is two weeks later we dropped down to one because we just don’t have the certified waste available,” Knerr said.
Explaining the term “certified waste” Knerr said the waste that is being generated by NNSA and the legacy waste that DOE’s Environmental Management at Los Alamos is responsible for is brought to a Centralized Characterization Program (CCP).
“Those are folks, based at the generator site, take waste and run it through the certification process. It’s a multi-step process where we look at all the historical information to document that acceptable knowledge. We run it through certain tests and if there are no issues then that container becomes certified,” he said.
Asked what could cause a hold-up in the certification process, Knerr it could be caused by several things. He noted that it would be easier if the amount of time that each container stayed at a particular station was the same, because then each container could just be marched through the process.
“That doesn’t work. Some of them take longer than others, so there are containers that are moving in and out of the certification area. Sometimes we find some non-conformances and we have to reconcile some differences. Essentially we generate paperwork to identify a non-conformance report, that container gets set off to the side, and depending on what it is that needs to get reconciled, sometimes that’s on our folks, sometimes that’s on the generator site,” Knerr said.
The Reporter asked how LANL could ship out more waste and if there was more cleanup funding from DOE meaning more waste could be certified, could WIPP handle accepting it.
“I think so. People ask all the time why can some of the money going to NNSA not be set aside for cleanup for waste that’s already in the community. Philosophically there are certain mission requirements and certain things can only be processed so quickly. If there’s waste that’s in the ground that needs to get dug up, there’s a lot of pre-planning that has to get done such as mobilizing a contractor and putting in infrastructure. It’s really looking at a lifecycle perspective in aligning the available resources with the various priorities as well. DOE doesn’t determine the funding level, congress does,” he said.
Knerr said WIPP gets projection from the various generators on how much waste they have.
“Right now we don’t see any real issues in being able to support both the ongoing EM mission and the NNSA mission. As we’re looking and making our plans, what we’re trying to do is ramp up our capabilities at WIPP back to the pre-2014 levels,” he said. “Certainly there is a desire to move waste and our capabilities are being aligned to satisfy the schedules that all the different generators have with regard to waste shipments. If you take a look at Savannah River or Oak Ridge, they need to ship transuranic waste but it’s not their top priority right now. So we get onesies and twosies out of them every month.” Knerr noted that Idaho National Laboratory has regulatory binding agreement in place for waste shipments and that DOE is moving in the direction of meeting those particular milestones. Recognizing that WIPP is part of the process for INL, he noted that measures similar to those implemented at LANL to improve the efficiency and increase the number of shipments are being implemented at INL to try and keep that waste moving.
“Right now, the site that’s having the biggest impact on delays is really INL. They’d love to move their waste a little faster. We’re continuing to support them. The shipments out of Los Alamos are a priority for us. We understand that the state of New Mexico deserves that attention. We also feel that we’re able meet the needs for Idaho on their particular milestones. I think we have the capability to support both so as I look at my shipping rates moving out to the future we’re targeting 17 shipments a week on average which is just shy of 700 shipments a year. I think we have extra capacity to be able to go up to 800 a year,” Knerr said. “That’s my contingency to be able to support surges from one site or another or if we have an issue or we’re not shipping at the rate we need to for months or two, we have the ability to recover within the overall schedule.”
Although Thursday’s forum was to provide an update on WIPP and was there was no plan to discuss DOE’s application to NMED for renewal of the 10-year Hazardous Waste Facility permit for the repository, Knerr said WIPP is following the regulatory process.
“We are currently responding to questions from NMED. They will evaluate our responses and if they are satisfied with them they’ll go ahead and publish a draft permit and it will eventually get to a point where there’s a public hearing. Within six months of the public hearing, there are some regulatory clocks that end up driving or requiring NMED to make a decision,” he said. “NMED are certainly firm regulators but I think they’re fair. I may not agree with some of the decisions they’ve made in the past but that’s okay. I recognize that they have certain responsibilities and they’re fulfilling those. We have and will continue to work with NMED to try to address any of the concerns they have while also being able to support our operational missions.”
Asked what he hoped to accomplish by holding the information session, Knerr said the intent is to provide information on WIPP.
“I know there will be an opportunity for us to respond to questions that are provided by the people that come to the information session. The part that I think is the most exciting is after the presentation and the Q&As, there will be an opportunity for one on one conversations with some of us and that’s something that DOE typically doesn’t do,” he said. It’s one thing to be able to answer questions and it’s another to get people’s feedback on their perspectives. Some people feel comfortable being able to stand up and ask questions or jot their questions down and hand them to us. Other times they just want to be heard and I am very interested in hearing their perspectives and understanding where they’re coming from.”
Following a very comprehensive slide presentation on the WIPP above ground and underground facilities by Knerr and Dunagan to some 100 people gathered in a room at the Santa Fe Convention Center, participants were given the opportunity to write questions on index cards and submit them to DOE facilitator Eric Roberts. Some of the attendees had expressed their desire to speak at the forum but were told that they could speak at the round table discussions which planned in the next room for the second half of the evening. Among them were Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen who came prepared with written questions and comments. She was accompanied by fellow Commissioner Anna Hamilton. Roberts notified Hansen and others prior to the start of the meeting that they would not be allowed to speak but could submit their questions in writing.
After the presentations, Cynthia Weehler, co-chair of the Santa Fe-based activist group as to speak but was told by Roberts that she could not and asked repeatedly to sit down. Then Janet Greenwald of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety stood up and asked for a few minutes for Weehler to speak. Greenwald was also asked to sit down but refused to and continuing talking, saying that because the second part of the meeting would not be recorded, she wanted Weehler to speak so that everyone present could hear what she had to say.
Greenwald asked Roberts, “Are you afraid of us?” to which he responded, “I’m not afraid of you at all. I’m following directions for the meeting”.
“She’s a very important person and she has a large group of people that have a lot of concerns,” to which Roberts responded, “We appreciate her being here and you being here”.
At this point Commissioners Hansen and Hamilton walked out as well as several others. Greenwald and others placed green tape over the mouths. As attendees were being invited to the one-on-one conversations in the next room, Nuclear Watch New Mexico executive director Jay Coghlan shouted out that the 2014 incident that shut down WIPP had not been mentioned during the presentation or the fact that half of WIPP is being reserved for waste from pit production. He called the meeting a “scam”.
Knerr, Dunagan and other WIPP officials chatted at length with attendees at round tables in the next room before adjourning.
The video and slide show from the event are expected to be posted on the WIPP website this week at https://www.wipp.energy.gov/.
Santa Fe County Commissioners Anna Hansen, left, and Anna Hamilton await the start of the WIPP information meeting Thursday evening. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com