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


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.

Todd Shrader, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) recently toured the WIPP facility to track its changes including an ongoing $280 million rebuild of the site’s ventilation system and the mining of three new panels where waste is emplaced.

Drums of TRU waste are emplaced about 2,000 feet underground at WIPP in a salt deposit that gradually collapses to bury the material.

Shrader said this operation, ongoing since 1999, was essential to EM’s mission of cleaning up nuclear waste around the country — both legacy waste from the Cold War and new waste streams generated by ongoing nuclear operations.

“It is a very critical facility. We could not our complete our clean up at a various places around the country. We have to have to WIPP open,” he said. “It also supports our national defense missions around the country.”

Where is the nuclear waste coming from?

Right now, Shrader said waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico was a priority along with waste from Idaho National Laboratory, for which the federal government holds contractual obligations for cleanup with the State of Idaho.

LANL was recently announced by the DOE as a site where production of plutonium pits, the triggers of nuclear weapons, would be ramped up in the coming years.

By 2026, the DOE expects to produce up to 30 pits a year at LANL, along with 50 a year at its Savannah River Site in South Carolina – an effort to update the U.S.’ aging nuclear arsenal.

That could mean more TRU waste generated at both sites, and Shrader said he was confident WIPP could continue to support the pit mission by disposing of its waste.

Shipments from LANL became a sticking point for state leaders in New Mexico, with lawmakers from the Los Alamos area and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) both recently expressing concerns that WIPP was accepting too much out-of-state waste rather than using the New Mexico repository to first mitigate New Mexico’s waste.

Records show that last year, about 74 percent of waste emplaced at WIPP came from out-of-state sites.

Todd Shrader, Department of Energy Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary with the Office of Environmental Management inquires about some of the equipment that will be installed as the capital projects continue to progress.

NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney in January called for the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate this practice by the DOE, arguing contracts such as one between the DOE and the State of Idaho came to the detriment of WIPP’s host state.

“The WIPP is subject to an NMED operating permit and must adhere to the requirements of the permit in order to remain operable in New Mexico and in service to the nation,” Kenney wrote in a letter to the GAO.

“Yet, the DOE EM has entered into legally binding settlement agreements with states to prioritize waste shipments to WIPP at the expense of shipments from other states, including New Mexico.”

But Shrader said LANL was a main priority of WIPP and EM’s clean-up mission, contending waste at LANL is shipped to the repository on a “just-in-time” basis as soon as it’s ready for disposal.

“Los Alamos clean up is a priority for us. We ensure that they always have all the shipping needs that they need,” Shrader said. “Los Alamos, more than almost any site, we essentially have just-in-time shipping. As soon as the waste is certified, relatively soon afterwards, it gets shipped off site.”

DOE Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) Manager Reinhard Knerr said Savannah River Site was the next priority facility for WIPP’s waste disposal, after Idaho’s for which the DOE has a contractual requirement with the State of Idaho for removal.

He said WIPP sees an average of about two shipments a week from Los Alamos, out of the present rate of up to seven a week from across the U.S. As more space becomes available, Knerr said WIPP targeted a goal of up to 17 shipments weekly.

Reinhard Knerr, manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office.

“It’s very much a balancing act,” Knerr said. “The more waste we can get off the hill, the better for everybody. We’re routinely shipping from Los Alamos. The only real cancellations we have are weather related. We try very hard to make sure we continue to support their needs. The waste isn’t just stockpiled there ready to go.”
Is nuclear waste repository expanding?

And as more waste is made available for shipment to WIPP, the facility has plans to continue mining new panels for disposal.

Knerr said Panel 7 will likely be full by July or August, about a month after Panel 8 is certified to begin accepting waste.

Meanwhile, another two panels were in the process of being planned and mined, he said, acting as replacements for space lost to contamination during an accidental radiological release in 2014.

The new panels do not amount to an expansion of WIPP, Shrader said despite recent allegations from activist groups, as WIPP’s statutory volume limit was unchanged and will remain without an act of Congress.

“We’re not expanding beyond the legislative limit that we have for WIPP,” Shrader said. “That number is still there. Does it mean we need new footprint in the underground? We will and we do. Some of that is replacement of some of the disposal footprint we lost in 2014.”

The same goes for extending WIPP’s prescribed closure date of 2024, he said, as outlined in the current permit with the State of New Mexico that is in the process of being renewed.

The renewal application notably removed the 2024 date without a replacement, leaving WIPP’s lifetime open ended.
Janelle Armijo, Carlsbad Field Office Federal Project Director discusses various aspects of the capital projects currently underway at WIPP with Todd Shrader, Department of Energy Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary with the Office of Environmental Management.

“As far as how long it’s going to be open, we’re constantly working with the sites,” Shrader said. “Reinhard and CEMRC (the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center) are constantly trying to figure out how long waste will be generated and WIPP will generated and how long WIPP will be open.”CNN.

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