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.

The request for proposal (RFP) will be offered as a “full and open” competition, per a news release from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Records show upon its initial signing on April 20, 2012, NWP’s contract was valued at about $1.3 billion.

Duties to be performed under the new contract were the Centralized Characterization Project which sees nuclear waste evaluated to meet specifications before it can be disposed of at WIPP.

The contractor will also be tasked with conducting WIPP’s primary operations, capital asset projects, experimental and testing activities and WIPP program support.

Possible upcoming WIPP projects

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force who works closely with the WIPP project said the workforce of WIPP would likely be unimpacted by the change in contractor, although upper-level leadership might change along with the philosophy that governs that facility and its operations.

“We would expect that there would be really no interruption with what goes on WIPP. Employees need to know that their jobs are safe, and the operations are more than likely to continue,” he said. “There may be new direction, new emphasis on various positions and new attitudes.”

Key projects that would likely be overseen by the new contractor included a $280 million rebuild of WIPP’s ventilation system that was expected to be complete in 2025, along with the ongoing project to construct a new air intake utility shaft which was paused when the New Mexico Environment Department declined to extend a temporary authorization to build the shaft during a pending permit modification process needed to operate the shaft.

“Most of the contracts for the capital projects are in place,” Heaton said. “We would expect those contracts would continue.”

The new contractor could face greater scrutiny on how it conducts major capital projects, Heaton said, as he noted a changing philosophy at the DOE requiring contractors to include specific information such as budget and timeframes when beginning work.

Using a indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) style of contract, Heaton said projects will be conducted with more specificity on budget and timelines to complete the work.

“Now they’re asking the contractor to put forth very specific timelines and cost estimates with each of these projects,” Heaton said. “It’s a very different approach rather than just having an open budget. It’s a way of scrutinizing it more to create more accountability.

“The philosophy at DOE has been to focus on very specific projects. That process has a very specific budget and time frame.”

Benefits to WIPP communities

During almost a decade at WIPP, Wood said NWP and Amentum enjoyed a close relationship with the Carlsbad community, contributing to local charities community needs.

“The Amentum-led NWP team has supported the WIPP communities for more than 10 years contributing millions in support of community development, education, heath/welfare, and the arts,” Wood said.

“Our employees have also volunteered their time, contributing thousands of hours annually in support of worthwhile community projects. NWP has a proven track record and will continue to support the WIPP communities.”

Heaton said he hoped the new contractor will continue NWP’s efforts of community involvement.

“We would hope that whoever takes it over continues to be very active in the community and very supportive. The community has certainly been very supportive of WIPP,” Heaton said. “They’ve been good corporate partners and we’ve been good community partners. We hope that would continue for whoever wins the bid.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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