Nuclear waste shipments to repository near Carlsbad lagging behind goals for 2022

“So far in FY 2022, most of WIPP’s shipments came from Idaho National Laboratory to fulfill statutory agreements between the DOE and the State of Idaho.”

By Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus | August 26, 2022

Nuclear waste managers in New Mexico are about 90 shipments of waste short of their goal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for fiscal year 2022 which ends in about a month.

Records show WIPP accepted 206 shipments so far for FY 2022, which runs from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022.

During an Aug. 4 meeting before lawmakers, WIPP officials said the facility was targeting 299 shipments this year.

Transuranic (TRU) waste is shipped to WIPP near Carlsbad for permanent disposal in an underground salt deposit about 2,000 feet below the surface.

It comes from U.S. Department of Energy facilities throughout the nation, and is made up of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities.

Without meeting its FY 2022 goal, WIPP would still surpass FY 2021’s 199 shipments, records show, delivered in a year marred with reduced staff and operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

DOE spokesman Tim Runyon said the facility expected to receive about 250 to 260 shipments this year, and that by the end of the week, the site will have received 213 shipments.

“The FY2022 goal was a best estimate based on a number of assumptions such as availability of waste,” Runyon said. “DOE continues to work with generator sites and at the WIPP site to safely increase the number of shipments in fiscal year 2023.”

FY 2020 was also impacted by COVID-19, seeing 180 shipments, as the virus was first discovered in New Mexico in March 2020, with shipments paused multiple times after outbreaks at WIPP.

Pre-pandemic in FY 2019, WIPP received 315 shipments of waste.

So far in FY 2022, most of WIPP’s shipments came from Idaho National Laboratory to fulfill statutory agreements between the DOE and the State of Idaho.

Records show 130 shipments came from Idaho in FY 2022 as of Aug. 24, about 63 percent of total shipments to the repository.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico was able to send 59 shipments to WIPP in FY 2022, records show, and another 13 came from Savanah River Site in South Carolina.

The DOE’s goal for FY 2022 was to send 62 shipments from Los Alamos to WIPP.

 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee each sent two shipments to WIPP in FY 2022.

Since WIPP first began waste disposal operations in 1999, it received 13,183 shipments of waste with 6,716, about half, coming from Idaho.

Out of state waste making up most of WIPP’s waste disposal was a concern for New Mexico lawmakers and state officials in recent years, who argued New Mexico should benefit more than any other state from hosting a repository.

Reinhard Knerr, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office said during the Aug. 4 meeting that waste was sent to WIPP for disposal based on its availability, and that the DOE was unlikely to meet the goal but would likely get to about 250 shipments in FY 2022.

He said Los Alamos was shipping about two to three shipments weekly to WIPP, and that waste from the lab is sent as soon as its ready.

“Los Alamos remains a priority for WIPP and is the only site with an ‘at ready’ agreement,” Runyon said. “This means WIPP will accept waste from Los Alamos whenever it becomes available.”

Safety incidents reported at nuclear waste site

Multiple safety problems were found last month at WIPP, per the latest report from a government oversight agency release Aug. 5.

A load haul dump vehicle which transports salt through the mine crashed into a bulkhead door, damaging the door that separates areas of the mine to provide air control, per the report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

The airlock was removed from service after the accident, and the load haul dump vehicle was replaced with a smaller haul truck that was identified as the preferred method of moving salt through the mine.

In another incident, a miner trainee injured his fingers while operating a roof bolter, used to slow the gradual collapse of salt that naturally buries the waste but must be controlled while operations are ongoing in areas of the mine.

The miner returned to work the next morning.

The ongoing project to sink a fifth utility shaft saw the loss of 480-volt power feed on July 17, per the report, after two fuses were blown by a rodent creating a short circuit.

The fuses were replaced and the area was cleaned, the report read. No other damage was observed.

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