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:  | 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.

Plutonium emplaced at WIPP will be down-blended, lowering its radioactivity to meet criteria required of all waste at WIPP.

Modification and equipment upgrades at K Area were also completed to down-blend the waste more efficiently, per a DOE news release.

Drums will be inspected to ensure no WIPP-prohibited items are included.

To do so, Savannah River Site personnel transferred the inspection equipment from the site’s Solid Waste Management Facility (SWMF) to the K Area Criticality Control Overpack Characterization and Storage Pad, allowing the facility to consolidate the activities at one location at SRS.

DOE Nuclear Materials Senior Technical Adviser Maxcine Maxted said the large equipment required multiple departments at the site to move to the storage pad.

“The transfer of this equipment was no easy task,” Maxted said. “Weighing over 70,000 pounds and at 40 feet long, many departments had to be involved in the safe transport.”

Maxted said moving the equipment will allow SRS to skip a step of sending drums to the SWMF for characterization before shipping to WIPP.

“Now we can perform both of those tasks right from K Area, making the process more efficient,” Maxted said.

The equipment being moved included an X-ray system allowing operators to inspect waste drums without opening them.

Drums are designed to safely package and transport materials such as the surplus downblended plutonium which was determined by the DOE to be in excess of the nation’s defense needs.

Following the inspection, workers ensure the drums are within radioactive limits, certify the contents for disposal at WIPP and package them into larger, sealed containers before leaving K Area.

The K Area storage facility can hold up to 3,800 drums awaiting shipment.

Construction in the area was expected to be completed this year, and following regulatory reviews from the DOE and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), WIPP will authorize the first shipment of plutonium from SRS in 2022.

DOE-Savannah River Waste Disposition Programs Division Director Sonitza Blanco said inspections are essential to ensure waste sent to WIPP meets the required specifications.

Blanco said workers follow the Central Certification Program managed by the WIPP’s primary operations contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership.

“WIPP has specific standards for the type of materials allowed in their underground repository,” she said. “The examination is performed under the certified Central Characterization Program, which is managed by the personnel from the managing and operating contractor of WIPP, Nuclear Waste Partnership.

“It verifies and validates that the waste within each container matches the documentation provided by SRS and that it does not contain any WIPP prohibited items.”

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.

SRS follows 2,045 shipments sent from Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site in Colorado and Idaho National Laboratory with 6,517 shipments of waste.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico was fourth, records show, with 1,450 shipments.


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