US cleanup mission set for big advances in 2020

05 February 2020

This year will be a "milestone" in the USA's cleanup of legacy nuclear sites, including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, as well as facilities in Idaho, Savannah River and Hanford, a senior US Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management officer has told stakeholders. In a separate development, miners at WIPP have completed the "rough cut" of the next area where transuranic waste will be emplaced.

Workers preparing Panel 8 at WIPP (Image: EM)

As well as the start of construction of a new utility shaft at WIPP (which will provide added ventilation and allow greater flexibility for mining operations there), EM expects 2020 to bring the start of operations at major liquid waste facilities at its Savannah River and Idaho sites, as well as construction work at a plant to treat tank waste at the Hanford site, EM Senior Advisor Ike White said. The Hanford facility is expected to begin operations "within a few years", he said.

Addressing the Energy Communities Alliance - identified by EM as a "key stakeholder audience" - on 31 January, White said 2020 would see a "leap forward" in the office's ability to tackle tank waste, the largest and one of its most challenging environmental risks.

"Collectively, [these capabilities] represent a fundamental shift for EM as we complete these long-running construction projects and focus on waste treatment operations," he said. "Not only will 2020 serve as a milestone year for EM and the department, but I believe it will start off a decade of significant progress across the programme," he added.

Next panel for WIPP

WIPP is the USA's deep geologic repository for defence-related transuranic nuclear waste. Sealed drums of waste are placed 2150 feet ((655 metres) beneath the surface in panels mined into salt rock. Mining at WIPP is timed so a disposal panel is only ready when it is needed for waste emplacement, because of the natural movement of the salt that will eventually permanently encapsulate the waste.

WIPP's first six panels have been filled, and waste emplacement is taking place in the seventh. When Panel 7 is full, expected in late 2021, it will be sealed and waste emplacement will then move to Panel 8. Each of WIPP's panels consists of seven rooms that are 33 feet wide, 13 feet high, and 300 feet long. The rough cut of the new disposal area, which has now been completed, gives the panel its shape. The ribs, or walls, will now be widened, and salt will be excavated from the floor to create the necessary height so waste canisters can be stacked in the rooms. Bolts are installed to stabilise the salt as mining progresses. Once mining is done, crews will install lighting, steel bulkheads, and wire mesh on the walls.

Work on Panel 8 began in late 2013, but was interrupted for more than three years after operations at WIPP were suspended following separate fire and radiological events in 2014. Waste emplacement resumed in January 2017 and mining operations in January 2018.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News