U.S. Department of Energy to continue cleaning up New Mexico nuke sites

During the Cold War and Manhattan Project, Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico was used to develop and test nuclear weapons, leaving behind a legacy of nuclear waste and environmental contamination.

ADRIAN HEDDEN | currentargus.com

For the next decade, the U.S. Department of Energy planned to continue disposing of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, while also improving infrastructure at the site and continuing clean-up efforts at nuclear facilities across New Mexico and the U.S.

In its 2020-2030 “Vision” released this month, the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) outlined plans for WIPP, and two other national laboratories it owns in New Mexico: Los Alamos (LANL) and Sandia (SNL) national laboratories.

WIPP is the nation’s only permanent repository for low-level transuranic (TRU) waste, which is permanently buried in an underground salt formation about 2,150 feet underground.

LANL and SNL serve as nuclear research institutions, studying the development of nuclear weapons and energy, along with methods of disposal of nuclear waste.

EM Senior Adviser Ike White said the Department issued its strategic vision to outline key accomplishments expected in the next 10 years, as part of a renewed effort of “in-depth” planning.

“I expect we will be able to do more, and go further, in making progress than just what is outlined in the document,” he said. “Broadly, the Strategic Vision is part of a more corporate-approach we are taking to managing the EM program.

“This vision document will help inform more in-depth strategic planning work across our sites. This is a living document and will be updated on an annual basis to reflect what we achieve, and our assumptions and planning moving forward.”

Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said the EM’s work is critical to addressing decades of nuclear waste level from weapons development since the Cold War.

“With our current budget, we look forward to continuing to execute EM’s mission to safely and efficiently address the substantial environmental liability resulting primarily from decades of nuclear weapons production and government-sponsored nuclear energy research that played such a pivotal role in domestic security and prosperity,” he said.

At around midnight on Saturday morning, as much of southeast New Mexico slept, a small crowd of dedicated employees at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant gathered to greet the site’s first shipment of transuranic waste received in more than three years.

WIPP to stay open past 2050

In its “Vision,” EM reported WIPP was expected to operate beyond 2050, as a 10-year permit renewal filed to the New Mexico Environment Department by the DOE moved back the final emplacement date from 2024 to 2052.

So far, TRU waste was removed from 22 of the 30 sites in the DOE’s EM complex, with 13,500 shipments completed.

Under the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act (LWA), a maximum of 6.2 million cubic feet of TRU waste can be disposed at WIPP, and about 69,000 cubic meters, or 39 percent of the volume limit was emplaced, the report read.

Through the next 10 years, the DOE expected to emplace 25,000 more cubic meters of TRU waste at WIPP.

In the next decade, EM intended to continue making infrastructure improvements at the facility, about 33 miles southeast of Carlsbad, to allow WIPP to continue its waste emplacement operations and mining of new underground areas to hold more waste.

The report pointed to the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS), which when complete would provide 540,000 cubic feet per minute of filtered air to the underground and allow for mining and emplacement to occur simultaneously.

The system is expected to be completed by 2021 and was estimated to cost about $288 million.

Another $75 million contract was signed last summer to build a utility shaft to serve as an additional air intake, while also increasing hoist capacity for salt and other materials from the underground to the surface.

The added airflows were hoped to allow mining efforts to increase alongside emplacement, completing the eighth and final panel to hold waste by 2022.

By 2028, the DOE expected to finish shipments of TRU waste from Idaho National Laboratory to WIPP.

Sandia National Laboratory continues cleanup efforts

Located on Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) environmental restoration (ER) activities entailed remediating inactive waste disposal and release sites, along with characterizing and addressing three plums of contaminated ground water.

So far, EM has completed work on 312 of the 315 sites deemed in need of soil and groundwater remediation.

Starting this year, the DOE will embark on two years of characterization efforts of the ground water contamination, installing eight monitoring wells at the Burn Site Groundwater area of concern (AOC) at the lab.

This included four wells required by law, and four added for contingency, read the report.

By 2023, EM expected to transition the Tijeras Arroyo Groundwater AOC to long-term management efforts, and corrective action at the Technical Area-V Groundwater AOC was expected to be complete by 2031.

Los Alamos National Laboratory addressing on-site nuclear waste

During the Cold War and Manhattan Project, Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico was used to develop and test nuclear weapons, leaving behind a legacy of nuclear waste and environmental contamination.

Work to remediate the damage included cleaning ground water and soil of chemical pollution, along with demolishing and deactivating abandoned and unused buildings at the LANL site by the end of 2020.

Of about 2,100 contaminated sites at LANL, about 1,100 were remediated, the report read, including small spill sites of a few cubic feet to large landfills encompassing acres of contaminated land.

Two ground water plumes were identified as needing remediation, read the report, one contaminated with chromium and being treated by pumping the water out, treating it and re-injecting. A final remedy was planned for 2022.

The other was known to have chemical constituents resulting from explosives work and was being studied to determine possible remediation options by 2022.

About 400,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste remained at LANL, with most buried at 26 disposal areas throughout the lab. Eight of the disposal areas were evacuated and closed.

Another 3,500 cubic meters of TRU was is stored at LANL and was intended to be disposed of at WIPP.

In 2019, LANL sent 16 shipments of TRU waste to WIPP.


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