Nuclear waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) near San Francisco, California resumed this month after a 10-year pause.
The waste was received at WIPP and will be permanently disposed of in the underground repository about 2,000 feet beneath the surface.
The resumption of shipments from LLNL was the result of a multi-year project and collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO), WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the NNSA’s Livermore Field Office, read a DOE news release.
LLNL is primarily a research laboratory that generates transuranic (TRU) waste during its research and engineering operations related to nuclear weapons, plutonium and other technological aspects of the DOE’s nuclear complex.
The Laboratory’s last TRU waste shipments were made in 2010, and the site accumulated newly-generated waste since which was stored onsite.
Livermore’s waste storage facilities were expected to reach capacity this year, and research operations could be impacted by a lack of ability to store waste.
In 2018, the lab received funding from the NNSA’s Office of Safety, Infrastructure and Operations to use the WIPP Central Characterization Program to characterize and certify TRU waste being held at LLNL that could be sent to the repository to ensure any waste sent to WIPP met its requirements for disposal.
LLNL’s safety documentation was updated, and multiple readiness actions were undertaken.
The lab began characterizing waste for WIPP disposal last year.
WIPP deployed mobile loading teams to LLNL once the waste certification was complete to load the waste containers for shipment.
All shipments were tracked via satellite on the road to WIPP, with the first arriving at the repository on Sept. 19.
“The recent shipment of transuranic waste from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is just one example of how WIPP plays a vital role in the DOE cleanup mission,” said Reinhard Knerr, CBFO manager.
“As the only facility of its kind in the world, WIPP’s mission is to safely transport and dispose of defense related transuranic waste from federal facilities across the country.
“As EM sites continue to make substantial progress in their cleanup missions, WIPP looks forward to continuing to safely accept these shipments and properly dispose of the waste.”
In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a notice in the Federal Register to allow TRU waste characterization to occur at LLNL before direct shipment to WIPP.
Before such an action, LLNL sent its waste to Idaho National Laboratory for characterization before final shipment to WIPP.
The DOE, in June 2019 sought approval from the EPA for a waste characterization program at LLNL, and the EPA conducted an inspection at the lab the following month.
The EPA did not find any causes for concern during its inspection, records show, and recommended the waste characterization program at LLNL be approved for use.
“The EPA did not identify any findings or concerns during this baseline inspection,” read the report.
Lawrence Livermore was one of the smallest shippers of waste to WIPP, per DOE records, with 22 shipments as of Sept. 26, records show, since the repository began accepting waste in 1999. Waste from the lab traveled 32,688 miles to WIPP.
Idaho National Laboratory was the biggest shipper with 6,485 shipments via about 9.02 million loaded miles.
In second place was Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant near Denver with 2,045 shipments, per the latest data, on 1.4 million miles.
Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico were other major shippers with 1,677 shipments and 2.5 million loaded miles and 1,421 shipments and 485,982 miles, respectively.
In total, 12,771 shipments of nuclear waste were received by WIPP as of Sept. 26 and traveled 15.3 million miles to get to the repository in southeast New Mexico.
Shipments were slowed in recent months amid the COVID-19 pandemic and public health crisis but appeared to ramp up in recent months.
WIPP slowed its operations in response to the pandemic, reducing personnel working at the site.
In March, when the pandemic first hit New Mexico, WIPP received six shipments compared with 10 in February and 24 in January, records show.
Seven shipments were received in April but in the last spring and summer, the rate of shipments saw increases with 20 shipments sent in May and 19 in June.
Another 23 shipments were accepted in July.
The late summer and fall saw a slight decrease in shipments as COVID-19 case numbers appeared to increase in New Mexico and around the country.
Just 12 shipments were accepted each in August and September.